CHICAGO (MarketWatch) – If you’re jumping on a plane for the Thanksgiving holiday, brace yourself for crowded flights, traffic jams and gnarly weather across much of the country.
“Get to the airport really, really early,” says George Hobica, the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. And if you’re not already an airline-club member, splurge on a lounge pass. You’ll need it.
Nearly 24 million passengers are expected to board flights over the 12-day Thanksgiving travel period that begins Friday, Nov. 16, according to the industry’s largest trade group, Airlines for America. That’s a jump of 150,000 passengers over last year, when there were more flights and seats available.
“We’re expecting planes to be full,” says John Heimlich, the group’s chief economist. Don’t count on having a middle seat to spread out on or finding much room in the overhead bins. Heimlich predicts flights will be at an average of 90% capacity on the busiest days. That’s a record for the holiday and means that most flights at peak hours will be jam-packed.
As is usually the case, the Sunday after the holiday (Nov. 25 this year) will be the most traveled day of the year, with some 2.4 million travelers scrambling to get home. The second busiest day will be the day before Thanksgiving — Wednesday, Nov. 21 — when slightly more than 2.3 million consumers will take to the skies. Rounding out the top three days of travel masses is Monday, Nov. 26, at about 2.3 million. The “slowest” day over the holiday period? Thanksgiving Day itself, with an estimated 1.3 million fliers.
While those are higher than last year’s results, which were flat compared with 2009, this year’s Thanksgiving-rush total is still some 10% below the industry peaks in 2006 and 2007, tied at 26.2 million.
Prices are on the rise too thanks to what Heimlich called a “smaller air-service footprint,” and record fuel prices, which will swallow much, if not all, of the industry’s profit in the fourth quarter. U.S. airlines have been grounding and reducing the number of flights since the recession as a means of bolstering revenue. In turn, that boosts domestic airfares as supply shrinks, pushing them up 4% so far this year, the group said.
That’s ahead of inflation, which was up 2% in October.
“In travel, we have more inflation than the rest of the economy,” says Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com.
If you’re flying out of Chicago O’Hare International or Los Angeles International you’ll be facing the largest crowds, Orbitz.com reports. O’Hare is on target to see the most passengers, according to the Orbitz Thanksgiving Insider Index, an analysis of booking data. San Francisco International, New York LaGuardia and Boston Logan International round out the top five busiest airports over Thanksgiving.