This Thanksgiving Could Be the Busiest for U.S. Air Travel in 18 Years

Skift Take

Looks like it will be harder for Americans to escape Thanksgiving travel delays.

Americans can expect busy roads and airports when they visit family and friends this Thanksgiving holiday.

AAA released its travel forecast Monday, and the group is expecting big numbers:

  • More than 55 million Americans will be traveling 50 miles or more from home. That’s up 2.3% from last year and the third-highest forecast for Thanksgiving since AAA began tracking it in 2000. It’s behind only 2005 and 2019.
  • While 49 million of those are driving, more than 4.7 million will be flying, AAA said. That’s the highest number of air travelers since 2005.

“Even with inflationary prices all around for the cost of goods and services, It’s not deterring people from traveling,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA.

In fact, Thanksgiving travel numbers may be even higher than the record 55 million because AAA’s forecast covers only the five-day period from Wednesday, November 22 to Sunday, November 26.

But flight bookings on the Tuesday before the holiday also appear higher than usual, according to AAA. That may be because Americans who work remotely can take advantage of cheaper airfares on off-peak days. “A lot more people are leaving earlier,” Twidale said.

United Airlines said in its forecast that the holiday travel period is getting longer thanks to remote work. Flights on off-peak days are “booking fuller” compared to 2019, according to United. Bookings on the Monday before Thanksgiving are up nearly 10% from 2019, while they are only up 3% for Wednesday that week.

Airlines Work to Avoid Flight Delays and Cancellations

U.S. air carriers are preparing for a busy travel season. Both American and United forecast this will be their busiest Thanksgiving period ever.

To meet the demand, United will fly more than 3,900 flights per day on average and add more than 550,000 seats.

“I expect a pretty robust travel season, especially over the holidays,” said American Airlines CEO Robert Isom at the Skift Aviation Forum this month. “A lot of our work right now is getting ready for whatever comes our way.”

Last year, Southwest Airlines had a massive meltdown during the December holiday period that disrupted the trips of millions of travelers.

The airlines have gotten better at managing a holiday travel influx, said Twidale. A major variable to watch out for is a weather disruption, like a snowstorm at an airport, which could cause a domino effect on the entire air traffic system.

“The wildcard really is weather,” Twidale said.

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