U.S. airline passengers face a Thanksgiving holiday travel season in which they’ll pay more to squeeze onto planes flying at their fullest since World War II.
“It’s like a war zone already,” said Brad Phillips, an Atlanta-based executive who will take a Delta Air Lines Inc. jet to Dallas when he and his wife visit their daughter. “I don’t even want to think about what the holidays are going to be like. It’s going to be mayhem.”
Sold-out first-class cabins will force Phillips to squeeze his 6-foot-3-inch (1.9-meter) frame into a coach seat. He will have plenty of company, because the U.S. industry’s trade group projects airlines will carry 24 million people, 3.5 percent more than in 2009, in the 12-day holiday period starting Nov. 19.
The crowding reflects cuts in airlines’ capacity and a rebound in travel after the recession spurred businesses to pull back and vacationers to stay home. Airport hassles may rise as well, as the Nov. 25 Thanksgiving holiday draws leisure travelers unfamiliar with guidelines for carry-on items.
Passengers trying to avoid fees on most big airlines of as much as $25 each way for a first checked bag will jockey for overhead bin space, raising the prospect of delays at gates while excess luggage is stowed in the hold.
“Delays and chokepoints are going to be at security, where people don’t know what they can carry on and what they can’t,” said Mike Boyd, president of consultant Boyd Group International Inc. in Evergreen, Colorado. “The situation with carry-on luggage is terrible now; it can’t get any worse.”
Slowdowns also may loom with the spread of full-body scanners to more airports, because passengers who decline the checks will be subjected to physical searches. There were 300 scanners in use as of last month, up more than sixfold from early in 2010, and that total will reach 500 by year’s end, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“When it’s a combination of very full flights, plus extra bag charges, plus crowding in overhead bins, plus additional patdowns in security, it can lead to a challenging environment, especially when you are talking about a peak travel period like Thanksgiving,” said Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor for Southlake, Texas-based travel website Travelocity.com.
Round-trip domestic holiday fares average $378, up 7.4 percent from 2009, including taxes, fees and surcharges, according to Travelocity.com. Average international tickets are $689, 14 percent higher than a year earlier. The 2010 prices are still less than 2008 levels.
An average 90 percent of aircraft seats will be filled on the busiest days of Nov. 19, 24, 28 and 29, according to the Washington-based Air Transport Association, which represents the nation’s largest airlines.
Load factor, or the percentage of seats filled, is poised to finish the year at its highest since 1944, based on data from the airlines, the ATA and U.S. Transportation Department. Loads reached 88 percent that year and have stayed in a range of 70 percent to 80 percent since 1997, ATA data show. Last year’s industrywide figure was 80.4 percent.
“If the airlines could have people standing in the aisles, they’d do it,” said David Swierenga, president of aviation consultant AeroEcon in Round Rock, Texas.
Phillips, 53, a partner and managing director at the Atlanta office of design and construction firm Beck Group, said online seating charts already suggest his Delta flight for Thanksgiving will be full.
“It’s going to be a nightmare, especially when you factor in kids and people who don’t fly very much and don’t know the rules,” said Phillips, who says he travels by air three to four times a month. “You just have to be resigned to it and show up early and grit your teeth.”
Airlines’ seating cuts during the recession, the deepest industry retrenchment since 1942, have enabled the biggest carriers to raise fares and report two consecutive quarterly profits as a group for the first time in more than two years.
“For the holiday periods, we will absolutely have full airplanes,” Southwest Airlines Co. Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said in an interview.
Travelers will pay as much as $60 more for round-trip tickets on any of the 24 days from Nov. 1 through year’s end that are designated by airlines as times of peak demand, which carry an extra charge, said Rick Seaney, CEO of Dallas-based travel website Farecompare.com.
“We’re already starting to see holiday travel book up where the cheap seats are gone,” said Lisa Sellers of Travel Experts Inc., a Fairfax, Virginia-based travel agency. “People are going to pay through the nose.”
Fares discouraged Andy Gilbert, 37, a Cincinnati-based account executive for Teradata Corp., from buying tickets for his family of four. Instead, they’ll drive 15 hours to Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday.
“If it was only a couple of hundred dollars more, I would fly,” Gilbert said. “But it’s not. It’s twice the cost. Economically, I can’t justify it.”
Crowded planes and airport gridlock won’t deter Bhuvan Lall, who plans to fly to the U.S. from India for business and leisure during the holiday season. Lall, 45, said he wants to take his son to the northeastern U.S. to see snow for the first time, and plans to use frequent-flier miles to shrink the bill for his family of three.
“We travel a lot, so we are very determined travelers,” said Lall, president of New Delhi-based filmmaker Lall Entertainment. “You have to take the good and the bad and the ugly together.”
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