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Amid fight for their survival, airlines ramp up for Thanksgiving travel boom

"We can expect most of the flights will be full over the Wednesday through Monday Thanksgiving period,” said one travel analyst.
Image: Passengers onboard an American Airlines flight
Passengers onboard an American Airlines flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, at San Diego International Airport on May 20, 2020.Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images file

Thanksgiving will be the first time many people fly since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, and airlines — currently battling for the industry's survival — are adding new routes to entice travelers to go home for the holidays, or at least encourage them to take a vacation somewhere warm.

“I don’t know if I’m flying home for Thanksgiving, but I have been thinking about flying somewhere soon. I’m conflicted,” said Elizabeth Skube, who lives in Los Angeles and has family in North Carolina. “The whole airport to and fro is still a large internal conflict.”

This year, 39 percent of people plan to travel for Thanksgiving, while 21 percent said they usually would but won’t due to Covid-19 concerns, according to Hopper’s Holiday Travel Confidence Report. Of those surveyed, 55 percent said Thanksgiving will be their first time traveling since the start of the pandemic.

The upcoming holiday travel period comes as tens of thousands of airline workers are out of jobs after Congress failed to pass additional coronavirus relief before an Oct. 1 deadline. While airline executives have said some of those job losses could be reversed if a deal is reached, the beleaguered industry is still facing a global reckoning that sees them burn through millions of dollars each day until travel demand returns to pre-pandemic levels — which some airline executives say could not happen until 2023.

"Though airlines have scaled back their service routes significantly since March, we can expect to see them shift aircraft and crews as they would in a typical year to correspond with higher demand routes as bookings progress this fall,” Liana Corwin, consumer travel expert at Hopper, told NBC News.

Airlines are responding to demand from travelers like Skube who have expressed a desire to take a vacation after months of being stuck in a work-from-home routine or plan a fun holiday getaway.

JetBlue announced two dozen new routes that will take off in November and December. The airline added the new routes due to “strengthened demand potential,” according to a news release. They include new city pairs across the Southeastern United States, Florida, the West Coast, and additional flights to the Caribbean and Latin America.

Southwest Airlines said it will start flying to Miami and Palm Springs, California later this year, pending government approvals. And United is adding more flights this month to align with an increased demand for leisure travel. The carrier plans to add more flights on days of the week popular with travelers “looking to get a head start on long weekend getaways,” the airline said in a news release.

“People will be flying, and this year, we can expect most of the flights will be full over the Wednesday through Monday Thanksgiving period,” Michael Boyd, chairman of Boyd Group International, an aviation research and forecasting company. “But there will be at least 30 percent fewer flights than last year.”

While the holiday period won’t compare to previous years, Boyd said it could “still develop into the bedlam we’ve come to expect” at airports.

“There’s the added new requirements for face masks, distancing, trickle boarding, plexiglass dividers at some TSA screening points, etc.,” he said. “In any case, get to the airport early, just like last year.”