The best time to buy your holiday plane tickets
If the summer was any indication, air travel’s hustle and bustle will carry over into the end of the year.
That’s the outlook from airlines and the tourism industry going into the fall travel season and looking forward to the winter holidays.
Hopper, a travel agency that analyzes data for airfare price predictions, is seeing strong booking demand for holiday travel after an “extraordinary” summer.
The pent-up demand after two pandemic years is in part because, for some travelers, this will be the first time they visit family for the holidays since COVID-19 erupted, said Hopper spokeswoman Lindsay Schwimer.
“Last year omicron was surging around the holiday season, so people will be eager to take holiday trips this year and see family and friends,” she said.
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Expect huge demand for holiday flights in 2022
Though it’s too early to tell just how busy the fall and winter holidays will be – AAA doesn’t issue its seasonal travel outlooks until two weeks before the holiday – some indicators suggest travelers should expect end-of-year travel will be just as busy as the summer.
TripAdvisor’s fall travel survey, which forecasts trends from September to November, showed 6 of 10 Americans plan to travel this fall. About 49% plan to fly.
At the Cowen 2022 Global Transportation and Sustainable Mobility Conference, which took place virtually, American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said the airline’s leisure bookings “remain strong” past Labor Day.
“As we take a look forward into the future, I’m pleased with how we’ve managed through the summer and rebounded through the pandemic,” he said.
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Airlines are hiring more workers
This summer was a challenge for flying: Many flights were delayed or canceled. Staffing shortages were a big contributor to that.
About 2.3 million fewer aviation jobs exist worldwide in September 2021, down 21% from pre-pandemic levels, according to Oxford Economics. That included about 340,000 fewer jobs in the airline industry.
Airlines are taking steps to improve their operations.
US airline employment in June 2022 increased by 6,775 workers to a total of 767,263, including 458,136 full-time passenger airline workers, according to the most recent data from the Department of Transportation. That’s an increase from the same month in 2019, before the pandemic.
Three airlines drove the increase: Delta Air Lines hired 2,981 people that month, United Airlines added 1,322, and Southwest Airlines added 1,007.
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Airlines for America, a trade group representing US airlines, said its seven-member passenger carriers – Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United – were staffed with 10% more pilots per block hour compared with before the pandemic.
(In the airline industry, block hours measure the time from when an aircraft’s door closes at departure to when it opens at arrival.)
American Airlines hired about 12,000 people across a variety of job categories last year, Isom said during the conference. He also said the company is “making good progress” as American continued hiring through the summer to prepare for the coming months.
But there will be fewer flights this fall
Despite the staffing growth, airlines still don’t have enough workers to meet the demand.
Many responded by removing flights from their schedules.
“Flight schedules for September and October are down by 15% compared to pre-pandemic levels, and carriers are reducing September flights by 5% compared to what was planned at the start of the summer,” Airlines for America spokeswoman Marli Collier said.
“Airlines set their schedules months in advance and are constantly evaluating to optimize performance and prioritize smooth operations.”
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American Airlines, which operates the majority of flights out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, recently published its final schedule for November that showed 30,000 fewer flights.
A spokesman for American Airlines, Brian Metham, said the airline works off what it calls a “placeholder schedule,” which is published about a year in advance, and adjusts it closer to the time the flights are scheduled.
Its final schedule is published about 100 days in advance, he said. On average, American operates nearly 5,300 departures daily nationwide.
American’s full-year flight capacity for 2022 is forecast to end about 7.5% to 9.5% lower than before the pandemic, Metham said.
How to book your holiday 2022 flights
Don’t delay: Industry experts suggest travelers book their flights as soon as possible.
Now through Oct. 20 is when consumers will find the best airfares for Thanksgiving and the December holidays, Schwimer said. Higher prices and limited options are likely after mid-October.
“There are still deals available now for the holidays, which is why we recommend booking as soon as you see a price you’re comfortable with,” she said.
Save money by flying off-peak: Avoiding peak travel days can result in savings.
Expedia found in its flight data for Thanksgiving that travelers could save an average 5% on airfare by flying on the Sunday, Monday or Tuesday before the holiday instead of Wednesday.
“For some destinations, the savings are even bigger – average ticket prices for Las Vegas, for example, drop from around $550 to $380 (round trip) just by changing the departure date to earlier in the week,” said Francheska Taveras, spokeswoman for the Expedia Group.
The two best days to fly: For travelers flexible on their dates or waiting until the last minute, Schwimer said, the best deals for the holidays are when the fewest travelers are expected: Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve.
Reach the reporter at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @salerno_phx.