“I would not be surprised if we look back at Thanksgiving 2022, and it’s equal to 2019 or even slightly more people flying this year. That’s terrific for the industry,” says Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco.
“What’s noteworthy is there are still fewer flights being operated and airfares are higher, and this is all taking place against higher inflation, higher interest rates. It shows me air travel demand remains solid and airlines will have a solid Thanksgiving. It bodes well for the Christmas and New Year’s travel period.”
The airline industry has been clawing its way back from a pandemic that crushed the business.
The first sign of travel demand getting back to pre-pandemic levels came over the Labor Day holiday but quickly retreated, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration. The number of passengers has been building for the past week, eclipsing 2019 levels last weekend.
The data illustrates how COVID has changed travel patterns. Business travel is still about 20% below pre-pandemic levels, but leisure demand has soared this year because of pent-up demand by travelers who didn’t take trips during COVID. Airline executives say business trips are blurring with leisure travel because more people can work remote.
“With hybrid work, every weekend could be a holiday weekend,” United CEO Scott Kirby told analysts recently, calling it a “permanent structural change” in air travel.
The result is longer trips outside the traditional Sunday-Thursday window, which also has the potential to extend the traditional peak travel period around holidays such as Thanksgiving. Harteveldt says he noticed holiday travelers were flying yesterday when he was traveling from Dallas to San Francisco on a business trip. He suspects that beyond hybrid work that allows flexibility, there might also be some lingering COVID effects at play.
“I’ve been talking with friends, and they’re saying they want to travel now and visit family who maybe they weren’t able to visit before. And maybe some people are thinking: ‘I’m going to take the trip because we don’t know what’s going to happen in a few weeks with the all the (RSV) or another COVID variant.’ “