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Airlines try to avoid meltdowns as longer Thanksgiving travel period begins

The Washington Post 11/21/2022 Ian Duncan, Lori Aratani
Travelers enter security checkpoints at Logan International Airport in Boston on Nov. 24, 2021, the day before Thanksgiving. (AP/Steven Senne) © Steven Senne/AP Travelers enter security checkpoints at Logan International Airport in Boston on Nov. 24, 2021, the day before Thanksgiving. (AP/Steven Senne)

Airlines handled with ease the first weekend in what they say is a new, stretched-out Thanksgiving travel window, an early sign their optimism heading into a critical holiday period is well-founded. But as the industry revs up for one of its busiest periods of the year, the holiday’s peak travel days and a threat of inclement weather lie ahead.

Industry leaders have been preparing for a Thanksgiving that looks more like a long, busy week of travel rather than a mad rush for the airport on Wednesday and again on Sunday — the result of flexible schedules that allow some to work from anywhere. Since Thursday, more than 2 million people per day have passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, topped by 2.4 million on Friday.

The figures have outpaced last year’s numbers and rival those of 2019. Less than 1 percent of flights were canceled and about a quarter were delayed in recent days, according to data from FlightAware, numbers that are comparable to the 2019 Thanksgiving travel period.

The holiday this week stands as a major test of airlines’ pandemic-era recovery and their ability to get travelers to their destinations on time after a chaotic summer. It also will show how the pandemic has changed travel patterns, biting into business travel while opening the door to trips that blend work, leisure and visits with family.

Industry leaders are optimistic, saying increased hiring and fewer flights mean air carriers have staffing in place to avoid major delays and cancellations.

“We feel that we have absolutely done a good job at making sure that we’re staffed up, making sure folks are trained and having extra folks on board to be able to handle Thanksgiving travel,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy at trade group Airlines for America. “And as a result, we’re confident that the week is going to go well.”

The stakes are high for the industry. A rocky summer that saw elevated cancellation rates drew the ire of passengers, lawmakers and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Federal officials announced fines last week against six airlines over delayed refunds, signaling they would be watching how the holidays unfold.

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“We are delighted that demand is returning like nobody thought possible, with more and more passengers having the income and the desire to take to the skies,” Buttigieg said Monday during a visit to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. “But we also know that means airlines have to continue taking steps to address the challenges of servicing those tickets that they sell.”

Executives expect the Sunday after Thanksgiving to be the busiest day for air travel over the period, when TSA said more than 2.5 million people could pass through its gates. United Airlines expects the day to be its busiest since the beginning of the pandemic, with about 460,000 passengers. The carrier said it added 275 flights to its schedule Sunday to accommodate demand.

Outside the control of airlines, weather could put a damper on travel. Forecasters said weather on Wednesday will be generally quiet nationwide, although a potent storm system will be possible in the eastern United States from Friday onward.

Analysts and airline officials say the overall trend shaping the industry during the holidays and beyond is passengers’ ability to work remotely, ushering in a mixture of business and leisure trips. Helane Becker, an analyst at financial firm Cowen, said that creates potential benefits for both airlines and their customers.

“It’s more manageable, frankly,” for airlines, Becker said. “It enables them to be less ‘peaky.’ For customers, it enables them to get better pricing.”

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Fares remain high, soaring in the early summer months before easing this fall. The average of domestic fares tracked by booking app Hopper stands at about $325 — well above the $268 at the same point last year and slightly higher than 2019’s prices.

During a recent earnings call, Vasu Raja, chief commercial officer at American Airlines, said the carrier is seeing increased demand during what traditionally were slower periods around Thanksgiving, such as Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.

“We are indeed anticipating that the Thanksgiving weekend, for example, will be peak, but even the days around it, we’ll have a level of demand,” Raja said.

While airline leaders are projecting confidence in their ability to handle the days ahead, the pandemic and subsequent recovery have caught airlines off-guard before. Thanksgiving last year went smoothly, buoying confidence, only for the omicron variant and severe weather to create weeks of misery over Christmas and the New Year.

Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, which represents flight attendants at Southwest Airlines, said workers are nervous as the holiday season begins.

She said that even with nearly 4,000 new flight attendants on the job, operations continue to be chaotic. The company has made adjustments, such as flying a reduced schedule to better match operations with available staffing, but Montgomery said one mishap in the fragile system can create turmoil.

“We’re like dominoes,” she said. “One thing happens and we just fall apart.”

Southwest became the first airline to surpass 2019 employment numbers this past summer, hiring 15,700 workers this year. Airline executives said they have made reliability a priority and will be able to manage the busy holiday travel season.

“We’ve been very purposeful in trying to make sure that we match our resources to our schedules for the whole year,” Southwest’s chief operating officer, Mike Van de Ven, said during a recent earnings call. “I feel like we’re really set up to perform well over the holidays as we go into Thanksgiving and the Christmas season.”

The pandemic has also changed how travelers get to the airport, with fewer taking transit or using ride-hailing services. The trend has meant garages at some airports are full at peak periods. Airport leaders have urged travelers to book a spot ahead of time or, where available, take a train to their flight.

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The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs Dulles International and Reagan National airports, said travelers should expect heavy traffic and the possibility of full garages. Officials at Los Angeles International Airport created an automated Twitter account that provides updates on parking capacity every 30 minutes.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske said Monday the agency is prepared for a busy holiday travel period. He said he expects passenger counts to approach those recorded before the pandemic.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get people through security as quickly as we can,” he said.

On Monday, there were signs at Reagan National Airport that travelers were eager to beat the rush.

Among those hoping for a trouble-free trip was Karla Vega, 19, a freshman at Catholic University. She said she was relieved to be leaving Monday for Wisconsin, rather than Wednesday.

“It’ll feel really nice to be back with my family,” she said.

Even as passenger counts rise and revenue bounces back, the industry still faces challenges.

Several major airlines are in contentious contract negotiations with pilots. The prospect of a strike is remote, but analysts say talks are expected to end with double-digit pay raises, on a percentage basis. That would add costs at a time when airlines already are paying more for fuel and supplies, but union leaders say a deal could provide stability.

Business and international travel, major sources of airline revenue, also remain down as domestic leisure trips rebound. An analysis by Airlines for America showed that passenger counts on Saturdays and Sundays are within 5 percent of 2019 levels, but Tuesday and Wednesday travel is down more than 10 percent — an indicator of the decline in business travel. Analysts say continued inflation or a recession also could cool leisure travel.

Becker said there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. One measure that compares the size of the economy to the number of tickets sold suggests there is still room for the industry to grow.

“I think that’s why the airline managements are so optimistic,” Becker said. “That’s why I’m more optimistic than I usually am.”

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