Nearly every peak travel period in 2023 brought air travel records, and airports are again bracing for large crowds as the end-of-year holidays approach.
U.S. airlines expect to serve some 39 million passengers between Dec. 20, 2023, and Jan. 2, 2024, according to the airline trade group Airlines for America. That’s up 16% from the same period last year.
The Christmas and New Year’s rush follows a summer that proved to be the busiest in the Transportation Security Administration’s history — a trend that continued over Thanksgiving, when the agency set a single-day record with 2.9 million passengers screened Nov. 26.
“We saw more travelers during this Thanksgiving break than we’ve seen in our history — not just for Thanksgiving — for any week of holiday peak travel,” Ed Bastian, Delta Air Lines’ CEO, noted during an appearance this week on CNBC while predicting an “equally strong” December holiday period.
Large crowds expected
Airlines expect the busiest days to fly will be Dec. 21-22 and Dec. 26-29. That’s the Thursday and Friday before Christmas (which will be on a Monday this year) and the four days immediately following the holiday.
Though the TSA likely won’t see any one day as busy as the Sunday after Thanksgiving, checkpoints are gearing up for sustained demand over the better part of two weeks, as is typically the case for the year-end holidays.
“We don’t usually see the [single-day] volumes that we see around Thanksgiving,” Dan Velez, TSA New England spokesperson, said in a recent interview. “But, a week before Christmas, it’s going to pick up quite dramatically.”
The holiday travel rush won’t just play out in the form of crowded airport terminals.
In the skies, airlines will offer 5.6% more scheduled seats on U.S. domestic flights this month versus December 2022, according to data from Cirium. Also, domestic seats are up 2% this month compared with December 2019 — though with airlines offering 12% fewer flights. Airlines are flying larger planes with more capacity, so they can cut the number of flights and still fly more passengers.
Travelers — not to mention the U.S. Department of Transportation — will surely keep a close eye on how airlines perform over the holidays, particularly Southwest Airlines. Last year, a scheduling meltdown in the wake of a winter storm led to Southwest canceling 16,700 flights.
That operational failure drew scrutiny from lawmakers and prompted the carrier to bolster its winter weather equipment on the ground, make investments to improve its technology and overhaul internal decision-making processes — an effort that, Southwest insists, is already making a difference.
“We are now so much better prepared for these extreme weather events,” Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s chief operating officer, emphasized on the company’s third-quarter earnings call.
Airlines confident about holiday operations
Southwest isn’t the only airline voicing confidence heading into the holidays. Airlines for America has repeatedly touted carriers’ hiring efforts in recent months, which have airline staffing levels at the highest point in two decades, according to the organization.
In the year to date, U.S. carriers have canceled a collective 1.3% of flights, according to data from FlightAware. That’s down sharply from 2.4% last year. (It is worth noting, though, that delays have remained roughly steady from last year, at around a fifth of flights).
Also, with the exception of United Airlines’ operational troubles over a few days in late June — which primarily stemmed from challenges at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) — this year has largely been without meltdowns of the sort we saw regularly last year.
“I do not expect another Southwest or similar meltdown. The airlines have cut the number of flights and are very focused on not overloading their systems,” Michael McCormick, a longtime air traffic control veteran, said. (McCormick previously managed New York’s critical center and currently serves on the faculty at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.)
Still, a continued shortage of air traffic controllers does bring at least some risk of disruptions, particularly when the weather is bad (more on that in a moment). However, the Federal Aviation Administration has routinely opened up new corridors in the skies during peak travel periods this year while extending a temporary policy allowing airlines to reduce flight schedules in New York through October 2024.
“The FAA is deeply focused on holiday travel and will [have the] staffing to meet it,” McCormick told TPG. “The remaining unknown is the weather.”
Early weather models look promising
Indeed, how Mother Nature cooperates may be the top factor this year in how smoothly air travel runs over the end-of-year holidays, as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg acknowledged last month.
Fortunately, the early weather models look promising — in contrast to the winter storm that precipitated Southwest’s problems a year ago.
“Overall, this December is going to be quite different from last year,” Paul Pastelok, Accuweather senior meteorologist and long-range forecaster, told TPG. “This year, leading up to Christmas, it’s going to be mild for a good portion of the country. In fact, it could be fairly quiet for a while.”
Pastelok is watching two weather systems — one on the East Coast this coming weekend and another around Christmas Eve that could affect the northern Great Plains.
However, he says, milder temperatures mean those systems will likely bring wind and rain instead of snow and ice.
Indeed, Accuweather is predicting it won’t be a white Christmas for much of the country.
Tips for traveling this holiday season
If you intend to fly this holiday season, it’s a good idea to plan now. If you’re a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck member, make sure you’ve added your Known Traveler Number to your reservation so you’ll be able to access the TSA PreCheck lanes.
Driving to the airport? Book your parking online now to save money and guarantee yourself a spot.
Also, download your airline’s app and familiarize yourself with its features. After all, that app can be your key to checking in, tracking a bag or rebooking if something goes wrong.
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