This year’s holiday travel season will be as chaotic as pre-pandemic levels: NPR

The holiday travel season is underway and will be just as busy as pre-pandemic times.


Okay. We hope you made it to your Thanksgiving destination safely and without too much trouble, because the number of people traveling this week appears to be close to pre-pandemic levels. And that means long queues at airports and train stations, overcrowded planes and blocked roads and highways.

NPR’s transportation correspondent David Shaper watches the roads and skies to give us some perspective on Thanksgiving travel. David, I’ve been on quite a few planes over the past few weeks. There was never an empty seat on this plane. So are travelers and this travel season more like pre-pandemic levels?

DAVID SHAPER, AUTHOR: Yes. I mean, when it comes to flying in particular, travelers definitely keep coming back. I mean, one airline rep says this is the first normal holiday season in three years. The number of people flying between now and the start of the new year is expected to be very close to, if not surpass, pre-pandemic levels. Nick Calio, head of industry group Airlines for America, puts it this way.

NICK CALIO: It’s going to be very busy. We will fly over 2 million people a day. And it was hard. It’s been two or three years since we’ve had a normal Thanksgiving.

SHAPER: What’s interesting about this, A, is that airlines are actually flying fewer flights over the holidays this year than they did last year. That’s 4 percent fewer flights and 13 percent fewer flights than in 2019, according to air travel data company Cirium. But at the same time, they actually offer more seats.

MARTINEZ: Okay. Fewer flights, more seats – how does this work and how does it affect airfares?

SHAPER: Well, the airlines are just flying larger planes while they park some of their smaller regional planes. It is simply more efficient and economical to fly more passengers with fewer planes with fewer pilots. So that means there will be more seats available on routes between major cities, but it will be much harder to find flights to Grand Junction, Colorado, or Duluth, Minnesota, or other smaller markets.

And in general, capacity is very limited and airline costs are increasing. So airfares are up significantly, 43% over last year and 15% over 2019 levels.

MARTINEZ: It used to be that yesterday, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after were the busiest days of the year for airlines. Is this still true?

SHAPER: Yes. I mean, these are still the two busiest travel days since the Thanksgiving period, but not as busy as they were. You know, like everything else since the pandemic, people are changing the way they travel.

Mike Arno of the airline data firm Cirium says that especially those who can telecommute seem to spread their travel throughout the week of Thanksgiving and beyond.

MIKE ARNOT: Instead of trying to get back to the office the Monday after Thanksgiving, maybe you can use this flexible work schedule where you have to pick the cheaper travel day, which would be, you know, Tuesday or Wednesday right now after Thanksgiving.

SHAPER: You know, it’s a pattern we see in other parts of the year, even with hybrid travel for work, where a business trip to one city on a Wednesday or Thursday might include a long weekend layover there, too.

MARTINEZ: Now, over the summer, I remember several airlines having crashes, operational breakdowns that caused a large number of flight delays and cancellations. Are airlines now perhaps better prepared for the rise in holiday travel?

SHAPER: Airlines say they’re better prepared. They were in employment. And as of August, they actually have more employees than before the pandemic, including 10% more pilots at the seven largest airlines. They have significantly shortened their schedules to more realistically match their staffing levels, they say. Whether they have enough wiggle room when bad weather inevitably hits or other issues arise remains to be seen.

MARTINEZ: David, what about the people who don’t want to fly but want to drive? What do the roads look like?

SHAPER: Well, they are very busy. AAA estimates that nearly 49 million people are driving for Thanksgiving, most of whom left home yesterday, giving us some of the worst traffic jams of the entire weekend. Mobility data analytics firm INRIX predicts where the worst congestion will be and finds that there is likely to be some pretty heavy congestion on Sundays, when many of us are heading home. And they even predict heavy traffic on Saturday in many cities.

In the meantime, the National Safety Council is urging drivers to use caution, especially if, like me, you’re in a part of the country where snow is likely to fall. They estimate that more than 500 people will die in preventable crashes on the country’s roads by Sunday, many of them due to drunk drivers.

MARTINEZ: This is NPR’s transportation correspondent David Schaper. David, thank you.

SHAPER: It’s my pleasure, A.

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