Thanksgiving Travel to Test Airlines’ Mettle as Demand Returns

Bloomberg — Air traffic for the Thanksgiving holiday is expected to approach pre-pandemic levels and travelers are likely considering their plans with some dread, given fresh memories about thousands of canceled flights.“The process of getting there is going to be difficult,” said Stephen Beck, founder of management consulting firm Cg42. “We’re going to have to prepare ourselves for the frustration that lies ahead. That’s generally where the average consumer is.”

U.S. airlines say they’re prepared for what looks to be the busiest holiday travel period since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

“We’re ready for it and excited about it,” said Doug Parker, chief executive officer of American Airlines Group Inc. He stated last week that most planes in the industry would be at or near their full capacity during an online forum held by Skift, a trade publication.
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“People are wanting to travel, wanting to go see family over the holiday or travel over the holiday,” Parker said. “It’s going to be a busy travel season.”

According to Transportation Security Administration estimates that approximately 2 million people per day will fly between Nov. 19 and Nov. 28. However, there is a chance for this average to rise dramatically in some days. AAA reports that passenger traffic during the final five days of the period will be only 9% lower than in 2019, the year before the pandemic.

United Airlines Holdings Inc. plans to fly over 4.5 million passengers in 2019, which represents 88% off its 2019 level. This is from November 19-30. Delta Air Lines Inc. expects to fly at the same level carrying at least 5.8 million customers.

American and Southwest Airlines Co. didn’t provide similar projections, but they’re the airlines that consumers might be most concerned about, after the carriers were wracked by cancellations last month. After the airlines resumed flight service from low pandemic levels, severe storms and staffing shortages meant that thousands of flights were cancelled.

Both companies have since reduced flying, brought workers back from leave, hired new ones and offered incentives in the hopes employees won’t miss work over the holidays.

United CEO Scott Kirby said on Bloomberg Television that he’s “confident” the carrier is fully staffedfor the holiday crunch and won’t experience operational problems.

Unions also say they’re prepared, assuming meteorological forces cooperate. “It’s really important for people to remember what they knew about airline travel two years ago,” said Sara Nelson, president of the 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “If there’s weather, we’re going to see delays.”

Those who are interested in traveling have reason to be optimistic. According to data from November 14, 2019, the Airlines for America lobbying organization, 11% less tickets were sold in the U.S. for international and domestic trips in the fourteen-day Thanksgiving period.

“People aren’t going to be deterred by the possibilities of storms and delays,” said Christie Hudson, a spokesperson for travel services provider Expedia Group Inc. “The pent-up demand is a huge factor, especially if you didn’t get to see your grandparents or family members last year or had to cancel trips earlier this year. Our mentality now is, ‘Screw it, I’m going.”’

There are many reasons to be cautious this year, besides the usual holiday travel problems and weather.

The nationwide labor shortage and tight staffing that’s lingered from the depths of the pandemic have left many airport employees and flight crews stressed from working heavy overtime. In the midst of the pandemic, airline employees have also had to deal with an influx of hostile passengers.

In addition, federal workers have until Nov. 22, which is the deadline to obtain Covid-19 shots, due to their busy schedules leading up to the holiday. Many Transportation Security Administration officers haven’t gotten the shots, according to Hydrick Thomas, president of the American Federation of Government Employees union division that represents frontline TSA workers.

Learn more: TSA Screeners Face Vaccine Deadline Due to Many Insufficient Shots

The agency, which has just completed a hiring surge, and the union said they don’t anticipate disruptions. Federal guidelines allow for gradual measures to ensure vaccination compliance so there won’t be mass firings during Thanksgiving week or immediately after, the TSA said.

Even if there are longer security lines and flight delays, some travelers won’t be fazed because they can build in extra travel time, taking advantage of the pandemic’s shift toward more workplace flexibility.

This allows employees to have longer work breaks to reduce peak travel times, according to Mike Daher of Deloitte, a transport and hospitality consultant. A Deloitte survey found that 75% plan to extend their vacation by adding an additional day because they have the opportunity to work from home.

–With assistance from Justin Bachman.

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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