There was something curious about the data from the US Transportation Security Administration on passenger traffic at airports last month. The Sunday after Thanksgiving was, as usual, very busy, with 2.6 million people being screened at security checkpoints. That is the highest number in a single day since the start of the pandemic, and evidence that many people are returning to travel. But other historical patterns did not hold. The Friday before Turkey Day, almost a week before the holiday, was busier than the corresponding day in 2019 and almost as busy as the day before the holiday – traditionally the busiest travel day of the year. People are traveling again, but not in the way they used to be.
Airlines had predicted that Thanksgiving travel would be weird. Between pent-up demand for travel, skyrocketing ticket prices and flexible work-from-home schedules, some people chose to fly at different times than in previous years. And carriers are predicting similar pattern-breaking trips during the December holiday season, stretching from now through Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa, and beyond New Year’s Day. “The bookings are a little different this year,” Andrew Nocella, United Airlines’ executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said in an October interview with investors. “They’re more spread out over several days than they used to be.”
In other words, the big holiday rush has become the big holiday mush, more of a blob of intensified travel than a burst of big spikes. A survey by consultants Deloitte found that US travelers are adding an average of six days to their seasonal travel this year due to flexible work arrangements. With remote work seemingly here to stay, the way some people travel during the holidays may have changed forever. They can now skip the most hectic and fraught days of the travel season – and maybe save some money.
A holiday scramble that is more spread out, with lower peaks, is also Christmas music to the ears of airlines. “We can become much more efficient because demand is regularly high in all periods,” Robert Isom, the CEO of American Airlines, said at an event hosted by the travel news site Skift in November. That means airlines and hotels, still short on pilots and cleaners and attendants, may not have to turn planes and rooms as quickly as they would during a traditional holiday crisis. And less intense competition among passengers for seats or rooms on specific days could mean companies can take more bookings overall. “This is going to help us operationally,” said United Airlines CEO Ed Bastian, explaining the phenomenon to investors this fall.
Less fortunate, the changes may mean travel workers take fewer breaks. “It makes the holiday season a little harder,” Sara Nelson, the president of the 50,000-member union the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement. “We used to plan our own vacations and work schedules around typical travel patterns. Now flights are full all the time. This makes it difficult to go to work or take advantage of the benefits that come with our work.”
Why is the vacation travel blob manifesting now? It’s the clash of three trends in how people travel and work in the wake of pandemic-era lockdowns and restrictions.
One is the growth of remote or hybrid work. Fourteen percent of U.S. full-time workers work entirely remotely, and 29 percent work out of the office a few days a week, according to a recent survey. Two, many people have a pandemic hangover that manifests itself not through an urge to lie down, as most hangovers do, but through a desire to get out, whether to visit mom or see the world. And third, supply restrictions — in airline seats on flights that still have limited schedules, car rentals and hotel rooms — are driving up prices and prompting some people to consider traveling on off-peak days. “If people find a better deal to travel on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday and they have the flexibility to do so, they will,” said Vik Krishnan, a McKinsey partner who advises clients in aviation, travel and aerospace. . industries.