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U.S. Airlines Prepare for Record 39 Million Passengers Over Holiday Period

Airlines say they're well prepared for the expected record-breaking number of passengers this winter holiday season

by Fergus Cole

December 21, 2023

Photo: Courtesy of Denver International Airport.

Airlines in the U.S. are getting ready for what is projected to be the busiest holiday season for travel. Between December 20, 2023, and January 2, 2024, a record 39 million passengers are expected to take flights, according to Airlines for America (A4A), a trade organization representing airlines in the country.

On average, approximately 2.8 million passengers will fly each day during this winter holiday season, a 16 percent increase compared to last year. A4A also expects over 3 million passengers to fly on the busiest days, projected to be Thursday, December 21, Friday, December 22, and Tuesday, December 26, through Friday, December 29.

Photo: Courtesy of Denver International Airport.

This potentially record-breaking winter period comes just a month after the U.S. travel industry successfully navigated its busiest-ever Thanksgiving period, with over 3 million passengers boarding flights on Sunday, November 26.

It also comes a year after a similarly hectic schedule in the 2022 holiday season, which was noted for Southwest Airlines’ operational meltdown that saw thousands of flights delayed and canceled amid a brutal winter storm.

Photo: Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Southwest has recently been hit with a record $140 million fine by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) for its role in the chaos, and the low-cost carrier, along with all other U.S. airlines, is making sure it’s suitably prepared for the upcoming holiday season in an attempt to avoid a similar scenario this year.

According to A4A, U.S. carriers have been “working for months” to ensure that they are prepared to deal with the unprecedented number of passengers they expect to serve this holiday season, as well as making sure that Christmas gifts are transported around the country efficiently and in time for the big day.

Airlines have been hiring staff at a rate 3.5 times higher than the overall U.S. job growth, and the industry has held its largest workforce for the last two decades, according to A4A.

Airlines have also adjusted their schedules to respond to rising demand and potential air traffic control (ATC) staff shortages. Finally, they’ve been investing in technology to ensure effective and efficient communication with passengers, including improving mobile apps.

Photo: Courtesy of American Airlines

American Airlines, the largest carrier in the country, expects to operate around 11,000 flights and serve 12.8 million passengers between December 20 and January 8.

The airline uses the Hub Analytics Efficiency Tool (HEAT) to counter any negative impacts of extreme weather and other logistical challenges. This technology collects real-time data on weather patterns, passengers, crew, ATC, and gate availability and has helped American Airlines avoid over 1,000 flight cancellations since it was adopted in 2022.

Photo: Delta, Boeing 757-200 wing getting de-iced in SLC. Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines expects to serve around 9 million passengers between December 21 and January 7 and is quietly confident of handling the demand well, having only canceled 12 flights during a successful Thanksgiving period. The airline has warned passengers that they may have to arrive at the airport more than three hours before their flight on the busiest days, including December 21 and 22 and between December 26 and 30.

Photo: United Airlines, Boeing 777-200ER. Courtesy of Denver International Airport.

United Airlines expects to fly around 9 million passengers between December 21 and January 8. The Chicago-based airline is gearing up for winter weather with 150 de-icing trucks ready to be deployed at airports across the country while it has also been on a hiring spree.

Southwest Airlines, which arguably has the most to prove out of any U.S. airline this holiday period, has also invested in de-icing trucks and high-powered heaters to help avoid any further winter disruption. Last week, Southwest’s CEO Bob Jordan promised that last year’s meltdown “will never happen again,” and the airline has recently carried out planning exercises to help staff deal with potentially disruptive winter scenarios.