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Busiest holiday travel season in years is off to a smooth start

U.S. airlines are predicting a blockbuster holiday season and have projected confidence that they can handle the crowds.
Posted at 5:04 PM, Dec 22, 2023

The holiday travel rush hit its peak Friday as mild weather and lower flight cancellation rates raised hopes for merrier drivers and airline passengers than last year.

U.S. airlines are predicting a blockbuster holiday season and have projected confidence they can handle the crowds after hiring thousands of pilots, flight attendants and other workers, seeking to avoid the delays and suspensions that marred travel last year and culminated with the Southwest Airline debacle that stranded more than 2 million people.

Airlines have canceled just 1.2% of U.S. flights so far this year, the lowest in five years, but bad weather is always a threat. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has warned that  the government will be holding the airlines accountable to operate smoothly and treat passengers well if there are disruptions. Earlier this week, the Transportation Department announced a settlement in which Southwest will pay $140 million for its meltdown last year.

Fewer than 50 flights were canceled in the U.S. by mid-Friday, and about 1,200 were delayed, according to FlightAware.

The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.6 million passengers on Thursday, which had been projected to be one of the busiest travel days, along with Friday and New Year's Day. That's short of the record 2.9 million that agents screened on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, since travel tends to be more spread out over Christmas and New Year's.

Travel has been strong this year — surpassing pre-pandemic levels — even though many Americans say they are worried about the economy. The TSA has already screened 12.3% more travelers than it had by this time last year and 1.4% more than in 2019.

Robert Lake said he hoped taking a pre-dawn flight from Atlanta International Airport would help him beat the crowds Friday but found the world’s busiest airport was already packed in the wee hours.

“It was very hectic. I got to my boarding area, like, maybe just minutes before the plane took off,” Lake said after arriving in Tampa to go on a cruise for the holidays. “I cut it way too close.”

Other travelers said they were pleasantly surprised at the ease of their trips despite the crowds.

“Super easy. We had a great flight. No issues so far,” said Kendall Black, who flew from Houston to Chicago O'Hare International Airport with her spouse and 3-year-old daughter to visit her sister.

Auto club AAA forecasts that 115 million people in the U.S. will go 50 miles or more from home between Saturday and New Year’s Day. That’s up 2% over last year. The busiest days on the road will be Saturday and next Thursday, Dec. 28, according to transportation data provider INRIX.

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Inflation has cooled off a bit, and travelers were helped by lower average gas prices and air fares.

The nationwide gas price average Friday was $3.13 a gallon, down 15 cents from a month ago and about 3 cents more than this time last year, according to AAA. Average airfares in October were 13% lower than a year earlier, according to the government’s latest data.

Internationally, air travel has also rebounded, though it remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Airlines have sold 31% more tickets for international departures to global destinations between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31 compared to the similar period last year, according to travel data firm ForwardKeys.

Some travelers in northern Europe had a run of bad luck with bad weather and labor unrest.

A storm brought heavy rain and strong winds across northern Europe overnight and into Friday, bringing down trees and prompting warnings of flooding on the North Sea coast.

Workers at the undersea tunnel between Britain and France held a surprise strike on Thursday, forcing the cancellation of passenger and vehicle-carrying service before an agreement with unions was reached.

Eurostar, which operates passenger train services from London to continental Europe, said services will resume Friday and it will run six extra trains between Paris and London into the weekend.

In the U.S., AccuWeather forecasters say rain storms could hit the Pacific Northwest and the southern Plains states including Texas later this week, but things look brighter for population centers — and key airports — in the Northeast. A Pacific storm pounded parts of Southern California on Thursday with heavy rain and street flooding.