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Holiday air travel forecast: Good fares, crowded skies

It is a good time to be an air traveler, according to Dean Headley, co-author of the national Airline Quality Rating and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.
Record Number Of Air Passengers To Travel Over Holiday Weekend
Passengers arrive at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles, California. Airlines and airports are reportedly expecting a busy travel season as airfares sink to the lowest in 17 years.David Mcnew / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

It is a good time to be an air traveler, according to Dean Headley, co-author of the national Airline Quality Rating and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.

With the airline industry in an extremely competitive mode, good holiday travel prices are available. "Most airlines continue to have revenue problems and this means good prices for the traveler," says Headley. "People can find some good travel bargains. If you're willing to have a little flexibility on schedule and airline loyalty, you can find some tempting fares."

Traffic volumes are generally strong again. Approximately 102 million people flew somewhere in the United States during November and December 2003. That number for 2002 was 92 million. With a recovering economy and intense fare competition among carriers, indications from the first six months of 2004 are that passenger traffic will be even higher for 2004 holiday travel. Headley predicts this year will be the busiest holiday travel season since 2000. Airports typically experience the busiest travel volumes of the year between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

The holiday traveler should expect full airplanes. Airlines are trying to squeeze as much revenue out of each flight as possible and full planes are a must, according to Headley.

Security will be even more vigilant this holiday season, given recent terrorist messages and heightened military activity in Iraq. A heightened security alert level may be issued, complicating the travel experience for the holidays. Headley suggests, "Arriving early at the airport is a good practice during the holidays. More people and tighter security add time to the process of air travel."

Worried about a canceled flight? Headley says that's always a possibility when traveling in winter weather, but "airlines are going to push pretty hard to make the flight happen because that's revenue, and they really need passengers in seats right now. They're not going to cancel a flight if it is not absolutely necessary."

Some history and travel tips:

  • Last year's on-time arrival percentages for November (80 percent) and December (77 percent) should be good indicators of what to expect this year.
  • Historically, denied boardings (being bumped from a flight involuntarily) increase in the last months of the year. With more people traveling and a need to be somewhere for the holiday, schedule flexibility often disappears. The industry practice of overbooking becomes a bigger problem for the traveler to understand and tolerate.
  • Typically, mishandled baggage rates are at their highest in December and January. Checked baggage is usually the best option unless it doesn't arrive when and where you arrive. A little back-up packing in your allowed carry-on may be advisable. Most airlines have a carry-on policy of one bag and a purse or briefcase. Checked bags seem like a hassle, but checking bags generally reduces stress and helps minimize the time it takes to get through security checks. Don't forget about the 50 pound limit for each piece of checked luggage.
  • The Airline Quality Rating report combines the performance elements of on-time arrivals, involuntary denied boarding, mishandled baggage, and customer complaint rates into a single performance rating score. When looking at the industry AQR scores for past years, the months of December and January are consistently the worst months for airline industry performance on these combined elements.
  • Looking at the AQR scores for December 2003, the worst performers were Atlantic Southeast and American Eagle Airlines. The best performers in December 2003 were Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines.
  • Send your holiday packages ahead of time rather than carry them on the airplane or check them at the airport. If you do take them with you, remember to leave them unwrapped for security inspection. Security doesn't have a problem with packed wrapping paper, but they do with wrapped packages.
  • Pack patience. Added security, along with weather delays and busier airports due to holiday travelers, can add time and hassles to your trip. Don't let the spirit of the holidays be stolen by the air travel grinch.