The Thanksgiving travel rush started again this year as people caught planes in numbers not seen in years, put inflation worries aside and enjoyed reuniting with loved ones and enjoying some normalcy after two holiday seasons marked by COVID-19 restrictions.
However, changing habits around work and play can spread the crowds and reduce the usual stress of holiday travel. Experts say many people will start their vacation trips early or return home later than normal because they’ll be working remotely for a few days — or at least they’ll tell their boss they’re working remotely.
The busiest travel days during Thanksgiving week are usually Tuesday, Wednesday and the Sunday following the holiday. This year, the Federal Aviation Administration expects Tuesday to be the busiest travel day with about 48,000 scheduled flights.
Chris Williams of Raleigh, North Carolina flew to Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and two children on Tuesday morning to spend the holiday with his family.
“It’s definitely a stressful and expensive time to fly,” said Williams, 44, who works in finance. “But after a few years of not being able to spend Thanksgiving with our extended family, I’d say we’re thankful that the world has come to a safe enough place where we can be with our loved ones again.”
Although Williams said the family is on a tight budget this year, she took the opportunity to teach her children some personal finance basics. Her youngest, 11, has been learning how to budget her allowance since March and is eager to buy small gifts for her friends on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. “Probably slime,” he said, “with glitter.”
The Transportation Security Administration screened about 2.3 million travelers on Tuesday, down from 2.4 million on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2019. On Monday, the numbers were up on 2019 – more than 2.6 million travelers compared to 2.5 million. The same trend played out on Sunday, the first year in a year that the number of people catching a plane during Thanksgiving week surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
“People travel on different days. Not everyone is traveling on that Wednesday night,” said Sharon Pinkerton, American Airlines senior vice president of trade group. “People are spreading their journeys throughout the week and I think that will help ensure smoother operations.”
AAA predicts that 54.6 million people in the U.S. will travel at least 50 miles from home this week, a 1.5% increase over Thanksgiving last year and just 2% less than in 2019. An auto club and insurance retailer says about 49 million of them will go. will travel by car and 4.5 million will fly between Wednesday and Sunday.
As the number of passengers increased this year, US airlines struggled to keep up.
“We had a tough summer,” said Pinkerton, whose group spoke for members including American, United and Delta. He said airlines have adjusted their schedules and hired thousands of workers – now they have more pilots than before the pandemic. “All in all, we’re sure it’s going to be a good week.”
US airlines plan to operate 13% fewer flights this week than during Thanksgiving 2019. However, according to data from travel researcher Cirium, using larger aircraft would reduce the number of seats by just 2% on average.
Airlines continue to blame flight cancellations on a shortage of air traffic controllers, particularly in Florida, a major vacation destination.
Supervisors working for the Federal Aviation Administration are “tested during the holidays. That’s what it looks like when we have challenges,” Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle said a few days ago. “The FAA is adding another 10% to the workforce, hopefully that’s enough.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg denied such claims, saying the vast majority of delays and cancellations were caused by the airlines themselves.
The TSA expects airports to be busier than last year and probably on par with 2019. The busiest day in TSA history was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, when approximately 2.9 million people were screened at airport checkpoints.
Stephanie Escutia, who was traveling with her four children, husband and mother, said it took the family four hours to get through screening and security at the Orlando airport Tuesday morning. The family was returning to Kansas City in time for Thanksgiving after a birthday trip to Disney World.
“We were surprised how full the park was,” Escutia, 32, said. “We thought it might be a little low, but it was full.”
He welcomed the sense of normalcy and said his family will gather for Thanksgiving this year without worrying about keeping their distance. “Now we’re back to normal and we’re looking forward to a great holiday,” he said.
People who get behind the wheel or get on a plane don’t seem to be worried about higher gas and airfare prices than last year, or widespread worries about inflation and the economy. This is already leading to strong travel forecasts for Christmas and New Year.
“This reduced demand for travel is still real. It doesn’t feel like going away,” says Tom Hall, vice president and longtime writer for travel guide publisher Lonely Planet. “It keeps the planes full, it keeps the prices high.”
Associated Press writers Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, North Carolina, Margaret Stafford in Kansas City and AP video journalist Terence Chea in Oakland, California contributed to this report.
David Koenig can be reached at twitter.com/airlinewriter