U.S. Holiday Air Travel May Be Worse Than Summer’s Frenzy

The U.S. travel industry expects this holiday season to be busy enough to make last summer’s turmoil seem orderly.

Airport officials and industry analysts say passenger traffic for the Nov. 24 Thanksgiving holiday through New Year’s is set to reach or exceed 2019 levels, when 93 million people packed US flights. This summer, the desire to resume vacationing and visiting family boosted passenger traffic to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a Bloomberg analysis of Transportation Security Administration checkpoint data.

“We’ll all look back on 2022 as the year that most airports really came back in full force,” said Doug Yakel, spokesperson for San Francisco International Airport.

The total number of airline customers in North America this year is projected to reach 94% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the International Air Transport Association. In 2019 — the year before Covid hit — US airports handled a record 1.1 billion travelers, according to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, though that number includes people on both domestic and international flights.

The rising demand means fliers will pay the price at the ticket counter: airfare costs around Thanksgiving time are up 43% from last year and 22% from 2019 levels, according to travel booking app Hopper.

As it was in the peak summer months of May through August, holiday travelers are likely to face delays at boarding gates, limited flight availability and luggage snafus. While airports are racing to staff up, airlines still face a shortage of pilots and other workers. Winter weather in the US and the usual increased demand for flying during a six-week holiday window may add to travelers’ woes.

United Airlines Holdings Inc. Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby said along with the insufficient number of pilots, carriers are facing the need for more aircraft as pandemic-induced supply chain problems are causing Boeing Co. and Airbus SE to fall behind in production.

Meanwhile, demand continues to grow, helped by the hybrid model of working from home and office that allows people to travel more, he said in an Oct. 19 interview with Bloomberg Television.

“It’s just a new, permanently higher level of demand,” Kirby said. “That makes every weekend a potential holiday weekend.”

Come the holidays, travelers’ stress may depend on their departure and arrival locations. During the summer, airports in Miami, Las Vegas and Orlando saw the biggest increase in traffic.

The number of travelers passing through Miami International Airport jumped 13% in May, June and July compared to the same period in 2019, according to an analysis of airport passenger data from the top 20 US airports compiled by Bloomberg. The vacation and business hot spot had the biggest increase, the data show.

For now, both San Francisco International and Los Angeles International Airport remain about 25% below pre-pandemic traffic levels. Flights to Asia, particularly those to China and Japan, have been reduced by Covid travel restrictions and geopolitical tensions, LAX Chief Executive Officer Justin Erbacci said in an interview.

Still, LAX will deploy extra air traffic controllers, guest experience teams and other staff to manage what is anticipated to be the biggest holiday travel season since the pandemic began, said Heath Montgomery, director of public relations.

“I would be surprised if we do not set a post-pandemic record at some point this winter around Thanksgiving or Christmas,” Montgomery said.

Officials in other cities are forecasting air traffic growth from large events during the holiday period. Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, having broken passenger records this summer, is preparing for the Consumer Electronics Show in January, said Rosemary Vassiliadis, director of aviation. CES drew in 171,000 attendees right before the pandemic.

While scientists predict that at least one variant of the virus will lead to a new wave of infection sometime this year, air travel industry experts say the roll out of vaccines and other safety measures mean travel is likely to stay high.

“People who haven’t had family holidays in some time — this year, they’re just gonna go for it,” said Bill Wyatt, executive director of Salt Lake City International Airport. “I expect a very busy season.”

 

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