This year saw the return of peak Thanksgiving travel, with people boarding planes in numbers not seen in recent years, putting inflation aside to reunite with loved ones and enjoy the normalcy of life after two holiday seasons. marked by restrictions related to COVID-19.
However, changing your work and play habits can disperse the crowds and reduce the usual stress associated with vacation travel. Experts say many people will start their vacation trips earlier or return home later than usual because they’ll spend a few days working remotely — or at least tell their boss they’re working remotely.
The busiest travel days during Thanksgiving week are usually the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday after the holiday. This year, the Federal Aviation Administration expects Tuesday to be the busiest travel day with approximately 48,000 flights.
Chris Williams of Raleigh, North Carolina, flew his wife and two children to Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday morning to spend the holiday with extended family.
“It’s certainly a busy and expensive time to fly,” said Williams, 44, who works in finance. “But after a few years of not spending Thanksgiving with our extended family, I would say we feel grateful that the world is a safe enough place 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 children the basics of personal finance. His youngest, 11 years old, has been learning to plan her money for help since March and happily buys small gifts for her friends on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. “Probably slime,” she said, “with glitter.”
The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 2.3 million travelers on Tuesday, down from more than 2.4 million travelers on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2019. On Monday, the numbers were up on 2019 with more than 2.6 million travelers compared to 2.5 million. The same trend occurred on Sunday, marking the first year that the number of people boarding planes during the week of Thanksgiving surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
“People travel on different days. Not everyone travels on a Wednesday night,” says Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of sales at Airlines for America. “People are spreading their trips throughout the week, which I also think will help ensure a smoother operation.”
AAA predicts 54.6 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home in the U.S. this week, up 1.5% from Thanksgiving last year and down just 2% from 2019 year. 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 rose this year.
“We had a challenging summer,” said Pinkerton, whose group represents members including American, United and Delta. She said airlines have cut their schedules and hired thousands of workers – now they have more pilots than before the pandemic. “As a result, we’re confident it’s going to be a good week.”
US airlines plan to operate 13% fewer flights this week than they did during Thanksgiving week 2019. However, using larger aircraft on average would reduce the number of seats by only 2%, according to data from travel researcher Cirium.
Airlines continue to blame a shortage of air traffic controllers for flight disruptions, particularly in Florida, a major vacation spot.
Air traffic controllers who work for the Federal Aviation Administration “get tested over the holidays. That’s when we seem to have problems,” Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle said a few days ago. “FAA is adding another 10% to staffing levels, hopefully that’s enough.”
Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg disputed such claims, saying the vast majority of delays and cancellations were caused by the airlines themselves.
The TSA expects airport congestion to be higher than last year and likely to be about on par with 2019. The busiest day in TSA history was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, when nearly 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 early Tuesday. The family was returning to Kansas City for Thanksgiving after a birthday trip to Disney World.
“We were surprised at how full the park was,” said Escutia, 32. “We thought that the park wasn’t full, but it was full.”
She welcomed the sense of normalcy and said her family will gather for Thanksgiving without worrying about social distancing this year. “We are now back to normal and looking forward to a nice holiday,” she said.
People getting behind the wheel or getting on a plane aren’t fazed by higher gas and airline 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.
“That pent-up demand for travel is still real. It doesn’t look like it’s going away,” says Tom Hall, vice president and longtime writer for travel guide publisher Lonely Planet. “The planes are full and the prices are high.”
Associated Press writers Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, North Carolina, Margaret Stafford in Kansas City and AP video reporter Terrence Chea in Oakland, California contributed to this report.
David Koenig can be reached at twitter.com/airlinewriter