The Thanksgiving travel rush was back on track this year, as people took planes in numbers they hadn’t seen in years, putting aside worries about inflation to reunite with loved ones and enjoy a bit of normalcy after two holiday seasons characterized by COVID-19 restrictions.
However, changing habits around work and leisure can disperse the crowds and reduce the usual amount of holiday travel stress. Experts say many people are going on vacation early or returning home later than usual because they’ll be working remotely for a few days — or at least tell the boss they’re working remotely.
The busiest travel days during Thanksgiving week tend to be Tuesday, Wednesday, and the Sunday after 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 holidays with extended family.
“Of course it’s a stressful and expensive time to fly,” says Williams, 44, who works in finance. “But after a few years of not spending Thanksgiving with our extended family, I’d say we’re thankful the world has become safe enough where we can be with loved ones again.”
Although Williams said the family’s budget was tight this year, he took the opportunity to teach his kids some personal finance basics. His youngest, 11, has been learning how to budget her pocket money since March and likes to buy small gifts for her friends on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. “Probably slime,” she said, “with glitter.”
The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.6 million travelers Monday, more than the 2.5 million screened the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2019. The same trend occurred on Sunday, the first year the number of people taking planes on Thanksgiving week surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
“People travel on different days. Not everyone travels on that Wednesday night,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president at the Airlines for America trade group. “People are spreading their travel throughout the week, which I think will also help operations run more smoothly.”
AAA predicts that 54.6 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home in the U.S. this week, up 1.5% from last year’s Thanksgiving and just 2% less than in 2019. The auto club and insurance retailer says nearly 49 million of those will travel by car, and 4.5 million will fly between Wednesday and Sunday.
US airlines struggled to keep up as passenger numbers soared this year.
“We’ve had a challenging summer,” said Pinkerton, whose group speaks for members like American, United and Delta. She said airlines have cut their schedules and hired thousands of workers — they now have more pilots than before the pandemic. “That is why we are confident that the week will go well.”
U.S. airlines plan to operate 13% fewer flights this week than during Thanksgiving week in 2019. However, using larger planes on average will only reduce seat count by 2%, according to data from travel researcher Cirium.
Airlines continue to blame flight disruptions due to a shortage of air traffic controllers, especially in Florida, a major vacation destination.
Controllers, who work for the Federal Aviation Administration, “are tested around the holiday season. That seems to be 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 will be enough.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has disputed such claims, saying the vast majority of delays and cancellations are caused by the airlines themselves.
TSA expects airports to be busier than last year and likely about the same as 2019. The busiest day in TSA history came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, when nearly 2.9 million people were screened at airport checkpoints.
Stephanie Escutia, who is traveling with four children, her husband and her mother, said it took the family four hours to get through screening and security at the Orlando airport. The family returned to Kansas City in time for Thanksgiving after a birthday trip to Disney World.
“We were surprised how full the park was,” says Escutia, 32. “We thought it would be a little less, but it was packed.”
Welcoming the sense of normalcy, she said her family would get together for Thanksgiving this year without having to worry about keeping their distance. “Now we are back to normal and looking forward to a nice holiday,” she said.
People getting behind the wheel or boarding a plane seem unimpressed by higher gas and airfare prices than last year or widespread concern about inflation and the economy. That is already leading to predictions of strong travel during Christmas and New Year.
“This pent-up demand for travel still exists. It doesn’t feel like it’s going away,” said Tom Hall, vice president and longtime writer for travel guide publisher Lonely Planet. “That keeps planes full, that keeps prices high.”
Associated Press writers Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, North Carolina, Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, and AP videojournalist Terence Chea in Oakland, California contributed to this report.
David Koenig can be reached at twitter.com/airlinewriter