US consumers drive Thanksgiving air travel to the highest level in 3 years

US airlines and airports are bracing for a surge in passenger numbers over the Thanksgiving holiday, with traveler numbers expected to hit the highest level in three years.

Nearly 55 million Americans will take to the roads, skies and trains for the holidays, and air travel will recover to about 99% of 2019 levels before the COVID-19 pandemic, travel group AAA estimates.

“I expect most flights to be full,” said John Grant, a senior analyst at travel data firm OAG. “So finding a seat… could be quite difficult.”

Travelers wait to go through security at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in Seattle, Washington, U.S., November 24, 2021. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo (Reuters photos)

Tired of coronavirus-related lockdowns, Americans are eager to travel more as the impact of the pandemic lessens. However, staff and aircraft shortages have limited the airline industry’s ability to increase capacity, which means fewer seats and higher fares for travelers.


Eric Fabricant, 38, of Connecticut, was flying Monday from Newark International Airport to San Francisco for the holidays and his ticket cost him $800 compared to $250 two years ago.

“I’m always a little worried about delays because I don’t feel like the airlines are that reliable,” he said, citing concerns about COVID-19 exposure on more crowded planes. “Knock on wood that works.”

Thanksgiving Eve on Wednesday tends to be the busiest day to travel. However, the option of working remotely has allowed many Americans to extend their travels and avoid the last day rush.

Thanksgiving Eve on Wednesday tends to be the busiest day to travel. Airlines for America and analysts advise travelers to be patient and arrive early to allow extra time for security.

The new travel pattern is also expected to ease pressure on airline operations, said Sharon Pinkerton, a senior vice president at Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade group. However, A4A and analysts advise travelers to be patient and arrive early to allow extra time for safety.


“We’re delighted that (travel) demand is coming back,” US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday at an event at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. “I wouldn’t say we’re out of the woods… But I’m cautiously optimistic that this week is off to a good start.”

United Airlines expects to carry more than 5.5 million passengers from November 18 to 30, nearly matching 2019 and 12% more than last year. It projects November 27 as its busiest day since the start of the pandemic.

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Delta Air Lines Inc expects to fly about 6 million customers this Thanksgiving holiday from November 18 to 29, just shy of the total number of customers who flew during the same period in 2019, the airline said.

Airlines are operating 13% fewer domestic flights during the eight-day Thanksgiving travel window compared to 2019, according to Cirium data.

While flight delays and cancellations have marred summer travel in the US, airlines say they are better prepared to handle the rush of holiday travel for Thanksgiving, which occurs on the fourth Thursday in November.

United said it is on track to hire 15,000 employees this year, while Delta said it has cut its hours and increased boarding time. A4A estimates that the major airlines now have 10% more pilots than before the pandemic. Federal officials say they also have enough staff to handle holiday travel.

O'Hare International Airport

An airplane takes off from O’Hare International Airport on January 18, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/Getty Images)


Meanwhile, reduced flights and booming demand have sent airline fares skyrocketing. Domestic airfare for Thanksgiving is 17% higher than last year and in line with 2019 prices, according to travel app Hopper. The international airfare is 30% higher than in 2019.

There is also an increase in demand for less expensive travel options, including buses and trains.


More than 1.4 million travelers leave the city for Thanksgiving by bus, train or cruise, according to AAA estimates. That’s a 23% increase from 2021 and represents 96% of 2019 volume.

The ratio between bus and train bookings has gone from roughly 50/50 in 2021 to 65/35 in 2022, according to the ground and air travel booking site Wanderu. “Buses have never been as competitive in the travel space as they are now,” intercity bus service FlixBus said in a statement to Reuters. This year, the company received Thanksgiving travel bookings as early as June, three months earlier than in 2019.

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