Airlines Are Expecting Millions of Travelers for the Holiday Season

Plan ahead.

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Crowds, long waits, and seatmates are returning to airports and airlines everywhere. The pandemic lowered the number of people passing through airports and boarding planes significantly, but summer saw a resurgence in travel numbers, and airlines are expecting another big boom ahead of the holidays.

The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) clocked about 2.6 million travelers moving through airports around Thanksgiving in 2019—the last Thanksgiving before the pandemic hit. Roughly 2.5 million passengers traveled during Christmas that same year. Airlines are preparing for similar numbers this year now that many people are vaccinated.

Southwest Airlines polished up its November and December travel schedule and brought on more staff ahead of what it and other airlines anticipate will be a busy travel season. Incoming CEO Bob Jordan told Yahoo Finance Live Southwest's crew "reserves are over 20%," which is suggested will help keep things flowing smoothly through the Thanksgiving and Christmas rush.

"Our booking for the holidays are basically following the curve that they followed in 2019, which gives up a lot of assurance that there's demand there and you'll see load factors that are pretty typical," Jordan said.

The airline has hopefully learned from experience. As Yahoo pointed out, 20% is a significant increase from the number of reserves Southwest had in place earlier this month when the airline faced several delays due to both bad weather and air traffic delays handed down by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights as a result and likely hopes to avoid doing so again, especially with so many people expected to be on the go.

"It's all about reliability. Our customers need to get to where they're going and they need to depend on us and they can depend on us," Jordan told Yahoo. He added that it's a tremendous responsibility "because they rely on us to get them to things that matter in their lives, to weddings and to visit family on holidays."

Although the pandemic isn't over yet, Cowne managing director and airline analyst Helane Becker told Yahoo she thinks people will be traveling anyway. She told the outlet that people are tired of missing milestone celebrations with family, and COVID cases are finally falling.

"It seems to us as though people are starting to take case counts in stride and ignore them as they plan trips going forward. I think COVID-19 is becoming endemic and people are just tired of hearing about it," she said.

Savanthi Syth, an analyst at Raymond James, affirmed those findings, telling Yahoo Finance Live this year is shaping up to look a lot like 2019, at least travel-wise.

"The holidays are booking in line with 2019. So I think that is pretty consistent. I think if it wasn't for the delta COVID variant, I think it would have been a much stronger holiday period for the airlines but that kind of put them a little bit behind," Syth explained.

Airlines are likely grateful to see passengers returning in, though it could spell trouble. Crews have seen an uptick in unruly passenger incidents, which they've tried to quell in various ways. The FAA stepped in to impose massive fines on passengers who lash out verbally or physically on planes. Airlines have even gone as far as calling for a new no-fly list of their own to call out passengers who misbehave in flight.

Airlines, along with all other forms of public transportation, still have mask mandates in place. A majority of recent incidents have been related to the mandates, which many seem to oppose. Airlines have not backed down, however. Travelers who fly anywhere this Thanksgiving or Christmas will have to wear masks while onboard aircrafts.

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Caitlyn Hitt is Daria IRL. Don't take our word for it—find her on Twitter @nyltiaccc.