updated 12/10/2009 12:33:22 PM ET 2009-12-10T17:33:22

Air travel over the holidays will fall 2.5 percent from last year, a trade group for the nation's major carriers predicted Thursday.

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The Air Transport Association of America said it expects 41 million passengers to fly on U.S. airlines over a 21-day period from Dec. 17 through Jan. 6.

The busiest travel days are expected to be the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday after Christmas — Dec. 26-28 — the group said.

James C. May, president of the transport group, said the lighter traffic over the holidays would continue a trend that has been seen throughout 2009, as the weak economy has cut into demand for travel.

But with most airlines operating fewer flights, planes will be more full on many days, he said.

Airlines have been losing money this year as traffic has declined — especially lucrative business travel — during the economic slowdown. Airlines have raised fees and tacked on surcharges for flights on the most popular travel days to make up the difference.

This week, officials with the nation's three largest airlines — Delta, American and United — said they are seeing some improvement in demand. Delta said it's selling more corporate tickets; American said demand is improving for leisure and premium travel, and United said it was seeing signs of recovery.

For holiday travelers, the airline trade group recommended that they check the status of their flight before heading to the airport and get there early. Gifts should be unwrapped in case they need to be inspected by the federal security officials, the group said.

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