Stats: Thanksgiving Air Travel to Hit All-Time High

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Airlines for America (A4A), the industry trade organization for U.S. airlines, has projected that a record 30.6 million passengers will travel on U.S. airlines during the 12-day Thanksgiving air travel period, up from an estimated 29 million passengers during the 2017 travel period. The forecast translates to an estimated 2.55 million passengers per day, up 137,000 per day from a year ago. Airlines are accommodating this increase in demand by adding 158,000 more seats in the marketplace each day, with a total of 2.94 million seats available to flyers every day.

The 2018 Thanksgiving air travel period runs from Friday, November 16, through Tuesday, November 27, with the busiest day projected to be Sunday, November 25, when an estimated 3.06 million passengers will take to the skies. 

Daily passenger volumes are projected to range from 1.73 million — on Thanksgiving Day itself — to 3.06 million on the Sunday following Thanksgiving. The busiest expected travel days in ranked order are:


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  1. Sunday, November 25
  2. Wednesday, November 21
  3. Friday, November 16

The lightest travel day is expected to be Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 22.

Airfares Continue to Fall

Average ticket prices continue to fall, to $360 in the first six months of 2018 ($338 in fare and $22 in fees). Adjusted for inflation, that's a decline of more than 5 percent year-over-year and more than 7 percent since 2010. The year-over-year decline in prices reflects a decrease in both airfare and ancillary fees for bags and ticket changes. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), second quarter 2018 inflation-adjusted fares were the lowest of any second quarter ever recorded by DOT.

Airline Operating Expenses Continue to Rise Quicker Than Revenues

During the first nine months of 2018, nine publicly traded U.S. passenger carriers (Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United) reported a combined pre-tax profit of $10.8 billion, or 8.2 percent of operating revenues – down from $14.9 billion and 12.1 percent, respectively, in the first nine months of 2017. U.S. airlines reported a 7 percent increase in operating revenues and a 12 percent increase in operating expenses, led by a 34 percent jump in fuel costs. Passenger revenue rose 6.5 percent, thanks primarily to 4.8 percent growth in revenue passenger miles flown. These nine carriers recovered 68 cents in revenue for every dollar increase in operating costs during the period.

In order to mitigate rising expenses, airlines are: increasing fuel efficiency; reducing non-fuel costs, including use of self-service technology, in-sourcing certain ground-handling and maintenance work, improved hotel procurement for employee travel and various health care initiatives; adding new routes enabled by modern aircraft; boosting cargo sales; and enhancing product quality including refurbished lounges, faster WiFi, improved premium seating to generate additional revenue.

Customer Complaints and Involuntary Denied Boardings on the Decline

Customer complaints to DOT regarding U.S. airlines are falling for the third straight year, averaging 1.02 per 100,000 passengers through August, compared to 1.90, 1.52 and 1.35 per 100,000 passengers in 2015-2017, respectively.

Through August 2018, airlines reported solid operational performance, including the lowest-ever recorded rate of involuntary denied boardings — just 0.12 per 10,000 passengers. U.S. airlines completed 98.1 percent of flights through August, exceeding 98 percent for the fourth consecutive year and posted an on-time arrival rate of 78.5 percent, up from 78.2 percent in the first eight months of 2017.

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