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Smooth Thanksgiving Air Travel Bodes Well for the Upcoming Holidays

With cooperative weather, airlines kept disruptions to a minimum. But will our luck hold in December?

by Dan Booth

December 6, 2022

Photo: Courtesy of Anete Lūsiņa / Unsplash

Despite passenger numbers that approached pre-pandemic levels, air travel in the U.S. across the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend came with relatively few disruptions, largely thanks to quiet weather across most of the country and better operational planning from airlines. 

The TSA says it screened nearly 27 million passengers at U.S. airports from November 17 through 28, including more than 2.5 million travelers clearing security checkpoints on Sunday, November 27, which is the highest number since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

However, increasing passenger numbers did not translate into the same air travel chaos the industry saw over the summer. According to FlightAware, in the week from November 20 to 27, the U.S. only saw 695 flights canceled, about a 0.4 percent cancellation rate.

Delays were also low until weather systems moved in Sunday, bringing rain across the upper tier of states and snow in the Pacific Northwest. With that, the number of disruptions rose, and the system saw more than 6,900 delays on that day alone.

With nearly 400,000 flights scheduled to fly over the U.S. during the nine-day Thanksgiving holiday, airlines and travelers anxiously anticipated the problems the industry encountered during a disastrous summer of cancellations and delays.

Photo: Courtesy of Alessio Rinella / Unsplash

However, in addition to the favorable weather throughout the holiday, airlines had scaled back ambitious schedules while continuing to staff up to avoid a repeat of the summer’s lackluster performance. Some carriers even offered extra incentives for employees to work over the holiday.

The result was fewer delays and cancellations due to a shortage of airline personnel, a problem that plagued the industry globally throughout the summer as demand unexpectedly rebounded.

Another factor that impacted travelers’ decision-making this holiday—and will likely continue to play a more significant role in the future—is the trend toward more flexible work days.

The freedom that allows travelers a wider choice of days to travel pushes more demand into ‘shoulder’ periods, flattening the peaks and spreading out traffic patterns.

U.S. airports saw nearly 27 million travelers during Thanksgiving, less than six percent below the same period in 2019 before the pandemic set in. However, with the Christmas travel rush looming, the trend is pointing toward closing that gap further.

Photo: Courtesy of Chicago O’Hare Airport

The airlines’ performance in the holiday just past has boosted hopes that the industry is ready for upcoming end-of-year crowds. But over the Thanksgiving week, travelers enjoyed remarkably calm weather.

December, on the other hand, can be notoriously unpredictable. So it remains to be seen whether Mother Nature is in a mood to once again deliver happy holidays for air travel.