Thanksgiving travelers told to expect record-breaking passenger numbers

Travelers wait to go through a Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Experts are advising patience on the roads and at airports as millions will be traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday. (Photo by Chloe Nordquist/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Close to 3 million people are expected to jam U.S. airports when the Thanksgiving travel season officially kicks off Friday.

And that’s not going to be the worst of it.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving is expected to see a record-breaking 3.1 million passengers take to the skies, according to a forecast from Airlines for America.

“It’ll be the busiest day in the history of the U.S. industry,” said John Heimlich, Airlines for America’s vice president and chief economist, in a phone call with reporters this week.

In Arizona, the pain will come even sooner, with officials at AAA Arizona and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport both saying the day before Thanksgiving is likely to be the heaviest travel day. Road trips on Wednesday afternoon could take four times as long as on a normal day, according to AAA.

“Although travel times will peak on Wednesday afternoon nationally, travelers should expect much heavier than normal congestion throughout the week,” said Aldo Vazquez, a spokesman for AAA Arizona.

Wednesday is also expected to be the busiest day for Sky Harbor, said airport public information officer Krishna Patel in an email.

She said Sky Harbor advises travelers to prepare for congestion by reserving their parking space, if parking at the airport, or by dropping passengers at the 44th Street Phoenix Sky Train Station. Patel also recommends checking flight status before coming to the airport and arriving two to three hours early – two for domestic flights and three for international.

The Thanksgiving travel period this year runs from Nov. 22 to Dec. 3. Heimlich said that for airports across the country, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is typically the single-busiest travel day and this year will be no exception.

Overall, U.S. airlines expect to have a “record of 31.6 million passengers over the 12-day period,” for an average of 2.63 million passengers a day, said Rebecca Spicer, Airlines for America’s senior vice president for communications, during the press call.

Once they get to their gate, fliers should expect flights to be booked to capacity, Spicer said. Airlines for America projects planes will be 79% to 91% full, and many airlines will be bringing in extra staff.

Airlines have added 859 more flights for this year’s Thanksgiving travel period, compared to last year. They will also add 108,000 daily seats to accommodate the expected 93,000 additional holiday passengers expected, according to Airlines for America’s press release.

At least six of the 12 days during the travel period will top 2.8 million – the “all-time high” for a season that was set this summer, Heimlich said.

Sky Harbor’s busiest month is typically March, Patel said, when spring training and spring break sees a lot of coming and going from the Valley. But air traffic surges in the fall as well, Vazquez said, when the area’s climate makes Phoenix one of the top 10 holiday destinations, along with tourist meccas like Orlando and Maui.

AAA is predicting that more than 55 million travelers will travel more than 50 miles from home this holiday season, whether by plane, train or automobile. That is 1.6 million, or 2.9% more than last year.

Vazquez said the increase is likely due to low unemployment and increased spending. Airlines for America recorded an increase in international travel and longer flights for this holiday season.

Vazquez said overall travel this year is expected to be the highest since the Thanksgiving of 2005, with AAA Arizona expecting to rescue about 6,000 drivers in Arizona over the travel period.

While the numbers may be new, that advice is time-worn: Vazquez advises travelers to “be patient … pack early and be ready for anything.”

Money Reporter, Washington, D.C.