No holiday for fliers: Sky Harbor likely among busiest for Thanksgiving

Air travelers line up at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, expected to be one of the busiest in the nation this Thanksgiving. (Photo by Chloe Nordquist/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is expected to be among the 10 busiest airports in the nation this Thanksgiving, when as many as 27.3 million people are expected to board a U.S. airline for their holiday travel.

The total number of travelers is up by about 55,000 passengers per day for the 12-day travel period from last year’s holiday, when 26.6 million passengers traveled on those airlines, according to projections Wednesday from Airlines for America, a trade group for U.S. carriers.

Airlines for America Vice President John Heimlich attributed the surge to affordable airfares, and said airlines have prepared for more holiday travelers by offering 74,000 more seats per day than they did last year.

Ten Busiest

The 10 airports that are expected to see the most Thanksgiving travelers, according to Airlines for America.

1. Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International (ATL)

2. Los Angeles International (LAX)

3. Chicago O’Hare International (ORD)

4. Dallas Fort Worth International (DFW)

5. John F. Kennedy International (JFK)

6. Denver International (DEN)

7. San Francisco International (SFO)

8. McCarran International (LAS)

9. Charlotte Douglas International (CLT)

10. Phoenix Sky Harbor International (PHX)

“Airlines are adding capacity to accommodate the increased demand,” said Heimlich, the chief economist for the association. “And travelers should rest assured that while more people will be flying, there will be more than an adequate number of seats available.”

Sky Harbor was not in the top 10 last year, according to an Airlines for America spokeswoman, but an official at the airport said they are working now in anticipation of the busy holiday surge.

“Our staff works closely together to ensure that we have staffing to meet our travelers’ demands,” Sky Harbor spokesman Greg Roybal said in an emailed statement.

“We also have a volunteer navigator program that has nearly 400 volunteers who serve as the first faces travelers see when they arrive at the airport,” Roybal said. “They are easily recognized by their purple shirts and jackets and provide directions and answer questions for travelers.”

Heimlich said U.S. airlines are expected to carry an average of 2.27 million passengers per day over the holiday travel period that spans Nov. 18 to Nov. 29. He said Thanksgiving Day is expected to be the lightest travel day in that period while Nov. 27 – the Sunday after Thanksgiving – is expected to be the busiest.

Roybal said the recent construction at Sky Harbor will not interfere with holiday travel because tenants and contractors work together to ensure construction impacts are minimized.

“Our construction projects, such as our Terminal 3 modernization project, are conducted in phases in order to minimize impacts to our customers,” he said.

The Airlines for America report said the volume of travelers, and the time it takes to funnel them through security checkpoints, are not as concerning as the possibility of bad weather delaying flights.

Weather cannot be controlled, but security procedures can, and Heimlich said gains in that area should help this Thanksgiving.

“We are pleased to report that the government’s numbers show that in just a year’s time, the numbers of folks that have access to expedited screening (through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints) has doubled,” Heimlich said. “One wild card, of course, for any travel period is the weather, especially on holidays.”

Heimlich said the nine airlines in the association that have reported third-quarter results, have been spending a combined $3.6 billion per month on their workforce and continued adding staff in 2016. The extra staffing, along with new technology, should help keep fliers moving.

“Customers, employees, investors and communities all are benefiting from a healthy airline industry,” Heimlich said. “Carriers are in a much better position to improve their products, invest in their employees, provide a return to shareholders and enhance the overall travel experience for the 2.2 million people who fly every day.”