Have you been dreading the annual Thanksgiving holiday crunch, when U.S. air travelers typically have to contend with backed-up airport traffic, overcrowded airport corridors and gate areas, and fully packed planes? Well, don’t worry about all that this year, because early indications are that we could be headed into one of the lightest holiday travel seasons in decades.
Earlier in the COVID crisis, airlines were expecting a slow but gradual revival of demand after the air travel market crashed in April and May. They got some limited growth for a few months this summer, but then things started to stall out as COVID flared in various hotspots. Carriers are now slashing their November schedules as it looks like the Thanksgiving crunch isn’t coming in 2020.
A new report from OAG, the U.K.-based airline schedule and data experts, carries the headline, “U.S. majors headed for a Thanksgiving roasting.” The company took a look at the three major U.S. carriers’ advance reservations for November that were on the books in September and compared those to the same numbers from last year. “For two of the majors (United and American), current bookings for November are running at just 25% of those reported at this time last year whilst for Delta Air Lines forward bookings are only at 12% of last year’s level for November,” OAG said.
The report said that without a spike in reservations, airlines were likely to cut their schedules significantly, and that is already happening. Long-term schedule planning has become an oxymoron this year, as airlines keep making changes month by month as bookings rise or fall. According to reports this week, the latest updates to domestic schedules for November show major declines: A week ago, U.S. airlines’ November schedules – based on their earlier, more optimistic outlook – were down just 9% from last year; now they’re down more than 38%. That includes a drop of 38% at Southwest, 44% at American and 50% at United from the November capacity they offered in 2019.
Family Thanksgiving tables could host fewer diners this year unless more people start booking flights.
Of course, bookings could pick up as the holiday approaches, following the recent trend of last-minute trips. The data trackers at the big online booking site Kayak tell us they’ve been seeing a late booking trend for holidays this year. “When looking at travel searches leading into the summer holidays (Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day), Kayak saw travel interest start to pick up about 40 days in advance but didn’t actually peak until one day prior,” a Kayak spokesperson said this week. “If we use that same logic heading into the winter holidays, we expect to see travel interest start picking up the week of October 19 and peak much closer to the holidays.” There are plenty of empty seats still out there, she noted, with Kayak’s flight searches for holiday travel currently down 81 percent from the same time last year.
On the flip side, holiday makers should be prepared for some hellish highway traffic jams on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the Sunday after, as this is definitely the year of the road trip.
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Complicating the situation for airlines – and for travelers – is the fact that terms of the federal government’s CARES Act, which helped airlines keep paying their employees, expired on Sept. 30. At that point, airlines that received relief funds were no longer obligated to keep all those employees on the payroll, so tens of thousands of layoffs are expected this month. Another federal requirement for airline recipients – that they keep flying to all the U.S. airports on their pre-pandemic route map – has also expired, so carriers can now cut flights in markets that are unprofitable. American Airlines started that ball rolling several weeks ago when it announced that it would end service to 15 smaller U.S. cities in October, and other carriers are now likely to do the same.
Members of Congress and the Trump administration have been in discussions in recent weeks to craft another big relief bill that would almost certainly include more help for the beleaguered airline industry, but so far there has been little progress on building a consensus.
Major carriers were seeing only a fraction of last year’s Thanksgiving bookings as of September.
So consumers hoping to go on a Thanksgiving trip by air are facing plenty of uncertainty this year, unless they hold off their bookings until things stabilize. Will the flight I book still operate, or will it be canceled by the airline? Will the airline still be flying to my destination city at Thanksgiving? And as the COVID-19 pandemic picks up steam in an expected “second wave” of cases this fall, do I still want to travel for the holiday?
If you do decide to fly somewhere for the holiday, there is a plus side. Those frustrating delays and crowded corridors at the airport are a thing of the past now. According to the new 2020 J.D. Power and Associates North America Airport Satisfaction Study, travelers this year are happier than ever with their airport experience. Overall satisfaction levels reached a record high of 784 on the company’s 1,000-point scale.
“Compared to the pre-COVID-19 environment when most airports were running significantly over capacity, the lack of crowds and long lines is actually creating a very convenient experience for travelers right now,” said Michael Taylor, travel intelligence lead at J.D. Power. But he added: “Obviously, this lower passenger volume is not sustainable for most airports.”
So those who do venture out for the holidays may end up with a pretty good experience after all.
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Chris McGinnis is SFGATE’s senior travel correspondent. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Don’t miss a shred of important travel news by signing up for his FREE weekly email updates!
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