dallas — Despite inflation and memories of travel crises from past holidays, millions of people are expected to hit airports and highways in record numbers during the Thanksgiving holiday.
The busiest days for flying will be Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as well as the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen 2.6 million passengers on Tuesday and 2.7 million passengers on Wednesday. Sunday will draw the biggest crowds, with an estimated 2.9 million passengers, which would narrowly eclipse the record set on June 30.
Meanwhile, AAA forecasts that 55.4 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home between next Wednesday and the Sunday after Thanksgiving, with roads likely to be the most congested on Wednesday.
The weather could disrupt air and road traffic. A storm system was expected to move from the southern Plains toward the northeast on Tuesday and Wednesday, bringing severe thunderstorms, gusty winds and possible snow.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during a news conference Monday that the government has tried to better prepare for holiday travel over the past year by hiring more air traffic controllers, opening new air routes along of the East Coast and providing subsidies to airports for snow plowing and de-icing. equipment. But he warned travelers to check road conditions and flight schedules before leaving home.
“Mother Nature, of course, is the X factor in all of this,” he said.
The good news for those traveling by plane and by car is that prices are going down.
Airfares average $268 per ticket, down 14% from a year ago, according to the travel site Hopper.
Gasoline prices are down about 45 cents per gallon from this time last year. The national average was $3.30 a gallon on Monday, according to AAA, up from $3.67 a year ago.
A survey of GasBuddy users found that despite lower prices at the pump, the number of people planning to take a long car trip this Thanksgiving hasn’t changed much from last year. Patrick De Haan, an analyst at the price-tracking service, said inflation has cooled but some things like food are still becoming more expensive. Consumers also charge more for credit cards and save less.
“Sure, they love falling gas prices, but many Americans spent in other ways this summer and may not be ready to open their wallets for Thanksgiving travel just yet,” De Haan said.
Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday travel season, and many still haven’t shaken off the nightmare of last December before Christmas, when severe winter storms canceled thousands of flights and stranded millions of passengers.
Scott Keyes, founder of the travel site Going, is cautiously optimistic that holiday air travel won’t be the same disaster. So far this year, he said, airlines have avoided massive disruptions.
“Everyone understands that airlines cannot control Mother Nature and that it is not safe to take off or land in the middle of a thunderstorm or snow storm,” Keyes said. “What really bothers people are controllable cancellations: those widespread disruptions because the airline couldn’t act because their system crashed like Southwest did over Christmas.”
In fact, Southwest did not recover as quickly as other airlines from last year’s storm when its planes, pilots and flight attendants were caught out of position and its crew reprogramming system was jammed. The airline canceled almost 17,000 flights before fixing the operation. Federal regulators recently told Southwest they could be fined for not helping stranded travelers.
Southwest officials say they have since purchased additional deicing trucks and heating equipment and will add staff at cold-weather airports depending on the forecast. The company said it also updated its crew scheduling technology.
U.S. airlines as a whole have been better about stranding passengers. Through October, they canceled 38% fewer flights than during the same period in 2022. From June to August, when storms can disrupt air traffic, the cancellation rate fell 18% compared to 2022.
Still, consumer complaints about air service have skyrocketed, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. There have been so many complaints, the agency says, that it has only compiled figures through May.
Airlines, in turn, have blamed the Federal Aviation Administration, which they say cannot keep pace with growing air traffic. In fact, the Transportation Department’s inspector general reported this summer that the FAA has made only “limited efforts” to address the shortage of air traffic controllers, especially at key facilities in New York, Miami and Jacksonville, Florida.
Meanwhile, staffing levels elsewhere in the airline industry have largely recovered since the pandemic. After laying off tens of thousands of workers early on, airlines have been on a hiring spree since late 2020. Passenger airlines have added more than 140,000 workers, an increase of nearly 40%, according to government figures Updated last week. The number of people working in the business is the highest since 2001, when there were many more airlines.
Airlines are using their expanded workforce to operate more flights. Southwest is the most aggressive among the big airlines, planning to offer 13% more seats over Thanksgiving than during the comparable five-day period last year, according to travel data provider Cirium. United and Delta are growing 8% each. American will grow a more modest 5% but will still have the largest number of seats.