Thanksgiving Holiday Travel will test airlines
Widespread flight cancellations. Excruciating expectations for customer service. Unruly passengers.
And that was it before the vacation travel season.
Even in normal times, Thanksgiving days are a tricky time for airlines. But this week is the industry’s biggest test since the start of the pandemic, as millions more Americans – emboldened by vaccinations and reluctant to take another vacation alone – are expected to take off only during the holidays of Last year.
A lot depends on the ability of the carriers to get through this smoothly.
“For a lot of people, this will be the first time they’ve got together as a family, maybe in a year, a year and a half, maybe more, so it’s very important,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot who is spokesperson. for FlightAware, an aeronautical data provider. “If it goes wrong, this is when people might rethink their travel plans for Christmas. And that’s what the airlines don’t want.
The Transportation Security Administration said it plans to screen around 20 million passengers at airports in the 10 days that began on Friday, a figure approaching pre-pandemic levels. Two million people passed through checkpoints on Saturday alone, about twice as many as the Saturday before last Thanksgiving.
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines both said they expected to carry around 12% fewer passengers than in 2019. And United said they expected the Sunday after Thanksgiving. its busiest day since the start of the pandemic 20 months ago.
Many Thanksgiving travelers seem to be going through their travel routines as usual, with some pandemic twists now familiar.
“The airports are busy right now and everything seems to be back to normal,” said Naveen Gunendran, 22, a University of Illinois student who flew with United from Chicago to San Francisco on Saturday to visit parents. “But we’re all packed together, and we just have to hope everyone is safe.”
The pent-up demand for travel has increased the cost of tickets. Hopper, an app that predicts flight prices, said the average domestic flight during Thanksgiving week was on track to be around $ 293 round trip this year, $ 48 more than last year – although $ 42 cheaper than in 2019.
As the industry projects optimism about easy travel, the influx of passengers has injected an element of uncertainty into a fragile system still reeling from the devastation of the pandemic. Some airlines have recently experienced issues that rippled for days on end – hampering travel plans for thousands of passengers – as carriers struggled to put pilots and flight attendants in place for delayed and rescheduled flights. , a task complicated by the lack of personnel.
“We have said many times: The pandemic is unprecedented and extremely complex – it was messy going into it, and it’s messy as we fight to get out of it,” the president and chief operating officer of Southwest Airlines, Mike Van de Ven, said in a lengthy note to customers last month.
His apology came after Southwest canceled nearly 2,500 flights over a four-day period – nearly 18% of its scheduled flights, according to FlightAware – amid a brief bout of bad weather and a shortage of flight control personnel. equally ephemeral air traffic snowballed.
Weeks later, American Airlines suffered a similar collapse, canceling more than 2,300 flights in four days – nearly 23% of its schedule – after high winds slowed operations at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. , its biggest hub.
American and Southwest said they were working to fix the issues, offering bonuses to encourage employees to work throughout the vacation period, ramping up hires and pruning ambitious flight plans.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing about 50,000 flight attendants from 17 airlines, gave the carriers high marks for their preparations.
“First and foremost, we are recovering demand after the biggest crisis aviation has ever seen,” she said.
“I think there has been a lot of good planning,” she added. “And barring a major weather event, I think the airlines will be able to handle the demand.”
According to FlightAware, only 0.4% of flights were canceled on Sunday, which the TSA said was almost as busy as the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 2019.
The major airlines have just started reporting profits again, and only after factoring in billions of dollars in federal aid. While the aid has helped carriers avoid massive layoffs during the pandemic, tens of thousands of employees have taken generous buyouts or early retirement packages or volunteered to take extended leave.
This made the recovery more difficult and the pandemic created new challenges. Flight crews had to deal with overwork and disruptive and belligerent passengers, leaving them exhausted and scared for their safety.
Helene Albert, 54, a longtime flight attendant for American Airlines, said she took 18-month elective leave that had been offered due to the pandemic. When she returned to work on November 1 on domestic routes, she said, she saw a difference in the passengers compared to when she started her leave.
“People are hostile,” she said. “They don’t know how to wear masks and they are shocked when I tell them that we are out of alcohol on our flights.”
The number of such unruly passengers has declined since the Federal Aviation Administration cracked down on the behavior earlier this year. But the agency has so far opened investigations into 991 episodes involving passenger misconduct in 2021, more than in the past seven years combined. In some cases, disruptions have forced flights to be delayed or even diverted, straining air traffic.
In addition to the industry’s struggles during the holiday season, there is the constant threat of inclement weather. Forecasters have warned in recent days that gathering storm systems threaten to produce gusty winds and rain that could interfere with flights, but for the most part the weather is not expected to cause major disruption.
“Overall, the news is pretty good in terms of general weather across the country and cooperation with travel,” said Jon Porter, chief meteorologist of AccuWeather. “We are not facing big storms across the country, and in many places the weather will be favorable enough for travel.”
Despite this, AAA, the travel services organization, recommended that airline passengers arrive two hours before departure for domestic flights and three hours before for international destinations during the Thanksgiving travel wave.
Some lawmakers have warned that a vaccination deadline Monday for all federal employees could disrupt TSA staff at airports, leading to long lines at security checkpoints, but the agency said that these concerns were unfounded.
“The compliance rate is very high and we do not anticipate any disruption due to vaccination requirements,” TSA spokesperson R. Carter Langston said in a statement on Friday.
With many people able to do their jobs or lessons remotely, some travelers have left the city early, leading what are typically the busiest travel days before the holidays.
TripIt, a travel app that organizes itineraries, said 33% of vacation travelers booked Thanksgiving flights last Friday and Saturday, according to its booking data. (That number was slightly lower than last year, when 35% of travelers left on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving, and slightly higher than in 2019, where 30% of travelers did, said TripIt.)
Among those who took advantage of the flexibility was New York University student Emilia Lam, 18, who returned home to Houston on Saturday. She’s attending classes remotely this week, she said, and planned her early getaway to get ahead of the crush. “The flights are going to be much more congested,” she said as Thursday approached.
Robert Chiarito and Maria Jimenez Moya contributed reporting.