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How airlines prepared for holiday season after last year's meltdown

The first holiday of the winter travel season came and went with minimal effects compared to last year.
How airlines prepared for holiday season after last year's meltdown
Posted at 4:37 PM, Dec 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-03 17:38:18-05

It’s that time of year again, and the rush is on.

It’s holiday travel season, and it started with a winter storm over Thanksgiving weekend.

Despite the activity, domestic cancellations on Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving were under 150, with international cancellations higher at over 800.

It's still a far cry from 2022, which saw over 3,000 flights delayed or canceled. 

Major airlines announced preparation efforts starting in the summer, particularly for inclement weather.

But this year, the Transportation Security Administration predicts record-breaking travel as Americans take advantage of flight discounts across the country.

"This holiday season is estimated to bring some of the busiest travel days in U.S. history, building on a summer that was already record-breaking,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

The demand is overpowering a shrinking and aging commercial pilot pipeline, and the problems go beyond the cockpit. Labor shortages continue to hit airlines, from air traffic controllers to maintenance workers.

“Airlines are going to do their best to operate every flight they can during the holidays and operate those flights on time or as close to on time as possible,” said Henry Harteveldt, who has been analyzing the flight industry for 20 years.

SEE MORE: Record travel crowds expected this Thanksgiving: What to prepare for

In addition to consistency in the air, Harteveldt says airlines are also trying to be more consistent on the ground, but challenges linger.

“The airport concession operators have been hiring more people to work at those concessions, but one of the biggest challenges concession operators tell me they have is getting the people who go through the background checks and accept that badge to work at the airport,” said Harteveldt.

He says providers of services like wheelchairs are having similar issues finding staff.

So what can you do to counter some of the shortcomings?

Harteveldt says to reach out to the airline before your trip to let them know if you will require assistance.

He also suggested reaching out to TSA in advance to let them know if you’re differently abled, and last but not least, book as soon as possible.

“If you find flights that meet your scheduling needs, that meet your budget, and you like and trust that airline, book the flights; don't try to game the system; the airlines have far more intelligence and far more data than you,” said Harteveldt. “The travel period is much busier during a time when normally before COVID we would have seen a decline, and airlines attribute this to the increased flexibility a lot of people have on where they can work.”

It’s a promising sign for airlines, as the industry seems to have passed its first holiday travel test.

“So far, 2023 has seen the lowest cancellation rate in the last five years at just 1.3%. It's much lower than last year. It's lower even than before the pandemic,” said Buttigieg.

The bottom line is that the rules of old have changed, but with proper preparation, one can still avoid a holiday panic.


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