The number of air travelers over the Thanksgiving holiday will be down this year, which means shorter lines and fewer airport hassles, but full planes and new fees may keep passengers grumbling.
"With seat cutbacks in the 6-7 percent range — and on some airlines even higher — the bottom line is planes are going to be as full as ever," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of Farecompare.com, on Monday.
"While there may be less people physically at the airport, the planes are going to be packed," Seaney said.
The U.S. airline industry, battered for more than a year by economic turmoil, has slashed capacity since 2007 to offset weaker demand and support fares. As a result, airports are less busy but planes are extremely full.
The Air Transport Association (ATA), an industry trade group, said this month that it expects a 4 percent year-over-year decline in the number of passengers on U.S. carriers during the traditionally hectic Thanksgiving holiday.
"It is increasingly apparent that the economic headwinds facing the airlines and their customers are anything but behind us. The recent announcement that U.S. unemployment surpassed 10 percent highlights one of the key factors impacting consumer buying decisions," said ATA president James May in a statement on November 9.
Peak travel days
Nevertheless, the skies over the United States tend to be more crowded on the days around Thanksgiving than at any other time of the year. The four busiest travel days surrounding Thanksgiving Day this year are expected to be November 20, 25, 29 and 30, the ATA said.
Holiday travelers cringe at the thought of weather delays or air traffic control glitches like the one last week that led to widespread delays and cancellations, particularly in the heavily traveled New York area.
The U.S. military, however, will allow commercial airlines to use some of its air space along the East Coast and parts of the West Coast near Los Angeles to help reduce congestion over the holiday period, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
Fees and surcharges
While less traffic is some comfort to air travelers, miscellaneous airline fees and surcharges are an annoyance. In recent years, airlines have introduced new fees to generate revenue amid falling demand and volatile fuels costs.
Fees for bag checks or priority seating — although technically optional — could irk inexperienced holiday travelers who are surprised by the costs, said airline consultant Michael Boyd.
"I don't think consumers will be paying more. They'll be paying it in a different way," said airline consultant Michael Boyd. "There will be fares. There will be surcharges. And there will be fees. And that does make things more complex.
"Anything that makes it more difficult to do business causes anxiety," Boyd said.
Carriers are adding surcharges of up to $30 each way, around numerous popular flight dates in 2010 such as Thanksgiving, FareCompare's Seaney said. He said most major airlines have added the fees.