Airlines try to avoid meltdowns as longer Thanksgiving travel period begins

Airlines try to avoid meltdowns as longer Thanksgiving travel period begins


Airlines handled the first weekend with ease in what they say will be a new extended Thanksgiving travel window, an early sign that their optimism as a critical holiday period approaches is well founded. But as the industry ramps up for one of its busiest times of the year, peak holiday days and the threat of bad weather loom.

Industry leaders are gearing up for a Thanksgiving that feels more like a long, busy travel week than a mad dash to the airport on Wednesday and again on Sunday – the result of flexible hours that allow some to work from anywhere. Since Thursday, more than 2 million people a day have passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, up from 2.4 million on Friday.

The figures surpassed last year’s figures and rival those of 2019. Less than 1% of flights were canceled and around a quarter were delayed in recent days, according to data from FlightAware, figures comparable to the period 2019 Thanksgiving travel plan.

This week’s holiday is a major test of airlines’ pandemic-era recovery and their ability to get travelers to their destination on time after a chaotic summer. It will also show how the pandemic has changed travel habits, biting into business travel while opening the door to trips that combine work, leisure and family visits.

Industry leaders are optimistic, saying increased hiring and fewer flights mean airlines have staff in place to avoid major delays and cancellations.

“We feel we’ve done an absolutely great job of making sure we’re staffed, making sure people are trained, and having extra people on board to be able to handle the Thanksgiving trips,” Sharon Pinkerton said. , Senior Vice President for Legislative. and the regulatory policy of the Airlines for America business group. “And therefore, we are confident that the week will go well.”

The stakes are high for the industry. A turbulent summer that saw high cancellation rates has drawn ire from passengers, lawmakers and Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Federal officials last week announced fines against six airlines for delayed refunds, signaling they would monitor how the holiday unfolds.

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“We are delighted that demand is coming back in ways no one would have thought possible, with more and more passengers having the income and the desire to fly,” Buttigieg said Monday during a visit to the international airport. Chicago O’Hare. “But we also know it means airlines must continue to take action to address the challenges of servicing the tickets they sell.”

Leaders expect the Sunday after Thanksgiving to be the busiest day for air travel during the period, when the TSA said more than 2.5 million people could pass through its doors. United Airlines expects the day to be the busiest since the start of the pandemic, with around 460,000 passengers. The carrier said it added 275 flights to its schedule on Sunday to meet demand.

Outside of the airlines’ control, the weather could put the brakes on travel. Forecasters said the weather Wednesday would be generally calm across the country, although a powerful storm system is possible in the eastern United States from Friday.

Analysts and airline officials say the overall trend shaping the industry during the holidays and beyond is the ability for passengers to work remotely, ushering in a mix of business and leisure travel. Helane Becker, analyst at financial firm Cowen, said this creates potential benefits for airlines and their customers.

“It’s more manageable, frankly,” for airlines, Becker said. “It allows them to be less ‘peaky'”. For customers, this allows them to obtain better prices.

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Fares remain high, skyrocketing in early summer before falling this fall. The average domestic fares tracked by the Hopper booking app are around $325 – well above the $268 at the same time last year and slightly higher than prices in 2019.

On a recent earnings call, Vasu Raja, chief commercial officer of American Airlines, said the carrier is seeing increased demand during traditionally slower times around Thanksgiving, such as Wednesday evenings and Thursday mornings.

“We do indeed anticipate that Thanksgiving weekend, for example, will be at its peak, but even the days around it, we will have a level of demand,” Raja said.

As airline executives project confidence in their ability to manage the days ahead, the pandemic and subsequent recovery has already caught airlines off guard. Last year’s Thanksgiving went well, building confidence, only for the omicron variant and bad weather that created weeks of misery over Christmas and New Years.

Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, which represents flight attendants at Southwest Airlines, said workers were nervous at the start of the holiday season.

She said even with nearly 4,000 new flight attendants on the job, operations continue to be chaotic. The company has made adjustments, such as a reduced schedule to better match operations with available staff, but Montgomery said a crash in the fragile system can create unrest.

“We are like dominoes,” she says. “One thing happens and we fall apart.”

Southwest became the first airline to top 2019 employment numbers last summer, hiring 15,700 workers this year. Airline executives said they had made reliability a priority and would be able to handle the busy holiday travel season.

“We’ve been very committed to trying to match our resources to our schedules for the full year,” Southwest COO Mike Van de Ven said on a recent earnings call. “I feel like we’re really poised to perform well over the holidays as we enter Thanksgiving and the Christmas season.”

The pandemic has also changed the way travelers get to the airport, with less public transport or using ride-sharing services. The trend means that garages at some airports are full at peak times. Airport officials have urged travelers to reserve a seat in advance or, if necessary, catch a train for their flight.

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The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles International and Reagan National airports, said travelers should expect heavy traffic and the possibility of full garages. Officials at Los Angeles International Airport have created an automated Twitter account that provides updates on parking capacity every 30 minutes.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske said Monday the agency is ready for a busy holiday season. He said he expects passenger numbers to approach those recorded before the pandemic.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get people through security as quickly as possible,” he said.

On Monday, there were signs at Reagan National Airport indicating that travelers were eager to beat the rush.

Among those hoping for a hassle-free trip was Karla Vega, 19, a freshman at Catholic University. She said she was relieved to be leaving for Wisconsin on Monday, rather than Wednesday.

“It will be really nice to be back with my family,” she said.

Even as passenger numbers increase and revenues rebound, the industry still faces challenges.

Several major airlines are in contentious contract negotiations with pilots. The prospect of a strike is remote, but analysts believe the talks should end with double-digit percentage wage increases. It would drive up costs at a time when airlines are already paying more for fuel and supplies, but union leaders say a deal could provide stability.

Business and international travel, major sources of airline revenue, also remain down as domestic leisure travel rebounds. Analysis by Airlines for America showed passenger numbers on Saturdays and Sundays are less than 5% of 2019 levels, but Tuesday and Wednesday travel was down more than 10% – an indicator of the decline in business travel. Analysts say continued inflation or a recession could also dampen leisure travel.

Becker says there are plenty of reasons for optimism. A measure that compares the size of the economy to the number of tickets sold suggests there is still room for the industry to grow.

“I think that’s why airline managements are so optimistic,” Becker said. “That’s why I’m more optimistic than usual.”

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