DALLAS — Greg Malcolm isn’t going to let busy airports and airline disruptions stop him from watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from Times Square in New York.
The Dallas hotel manager changed his flight from Wednesday to Tuesday next week to give him and his wife an extra day in case his flight is delayed, as many have been in recent months.
“I’m anxious about the flight,” said Malcolm, 62. “This is my childhood dream. I didn’t want to let anything get in the way.”
After a turbulent summer and fall, airlines and airports in North Texas and beyond are preparing for their largest crowds of the pandemic era. DFW International Airport expects 2.3 million passengers between Nov. 18 and Nov. 29, a period that was extended as many travelers who are still working from home are stretching out trips since they can work virtually. That’s 95% as many passengers as it saw during the same period in pre-pandemic 2019.
The crowded holiday comes just after Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and Fort Worth-based American Airlines experienced major disruptions in October due to separate isolated weather events, each cascading into thousands of canceled flights and hundreds of thousands of passengers delayed. The airlines saw similar disruptions during busy travel weekends over the summer.
“We’re gonna be busy,” said American Airlines CEO Doug Parker at an industry conference Wednesday. “People are wanting to travel, wanting to get to go see family for the holidays or traveling for the holidays.”
Nationwide, the Transportation Security Administration said it expects 20 million passengers between Nov. 19 and 29. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines said it could see as many as 550,000 travelers on the Sunday following Thanksgiving, which would be “well over the previous single-day post-downturn record of 516,000 set this summer.”
At DFW, that includes more than 256,000 potential passengers traveling out of DFW on the day before Thanksgiving, slightly more than airlines planned in 2019, according to data from Diio by Cirium. That’s slightly less than the 258,000 seats that airlines have scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 28, the busiest day of the Thanksgiving travel period.
Airlines have 977 flights planned for the day before Thanksgiving out of DFW Airport, nearly as many as the peak this summer. But planes are expected to be even more full during the compact holiday travel weekend than they were during the summer vacation peak.
Crowds are expected to be big enough that DFW Airport cut off pre-paid parking starting Nov. 18 for the rest of the Thanksgiving period. The airport said it has enough parking, even with long-term parking lots still closed because of a lack of demand. However, the airport is warning that one or two of its five parking garages may fill and that airport staff will be directing passengers to emptier garages.
The busiest day at Dallas Love Field also is expected to be Sunday, Nov. 28, when the airport will see about 26,700 departing and transferring passengers, according to Love Field spokesman Chris Perry. The Sunday after Thanksgiving usually competes for the busiest of the year and in 2019 was the busiest in U.S. travel history. But this year, the next day, a Monday, will be the second-busiest day of the holiday period at Love Field, and the entire week is expected to see elevated passenger levels.
But even with the busy airline schedules and airport crowds set for the week, it could have been worse. American and Southwest Airlines each said they reduced schedules for the holiday period after operational meltdowns in October. Both have blamed staffing issues, while unions for pilots and flight attendants say their members are stretched to the limit after months of heavy flying and frequently rebooked trips.
American and Southwest have responded by hiring thousands of new employees, particularly gate agents, reservation agents and others who deal with sidelined passengers when there are delays and cancellations.
“We’ve all heard of the staffing challenges that the hometown airlines and all other airlines are facing,” said Jeff Pelletier, founder of Dallas-based Airline Data Inc. “I hope that Southwest, American, Delta and Untied will be staffed to avoid the headlines that we’ve seen in the last few weeks.”
Still, American Airlines has nearly 10,000 fewer employees than it did before the COVID-19 pandemic, even as it tries to hire about 4,000 new workers before the end of the year. Southwest Airlines is trying to hire 5,000 new employees. But most pilots and flight attendants won’t be ready for duty until early in 2022.
American and Southwest are offering bonus pay and other perks to employees to incentivize them to pick up extra hours in November and December, hoping that they will have more workers on staff for peak crowds.
Airline operations are always challenged during Thanksgiving, even in normal years. Airlines are forced to ramp up operations after a few quiet months following the summer holiday. And the chances for winter weather increase as the northern parts of the country head into cold-weather months. Forecasters are expecting a “potentially significant” storm to strike the northeast next just in time for Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving travel.
“Severe weather is nothing new for airlines, so I think they try to deflect the blame onto some things like wind and weather,” said Colin Scarola, a research analyst with CFRA. “Under normal circumstances, they could call in reserve pilots or flight attendants when they have outages in certain parts of the country, but their reserve capacity is essentially nothing because most of the crews are already running at maximum hours allowed under regulations.”
Travel experts are warning passengers to give themselves plenty of extra time to make it to holiday activities and to anticipate a high likelihood of a travel delay.
“The common denominator for all those disruptions is that they were pushing to get back to the pre-pandemic flight schedule,” Scarola said. “What they found is that the labor supply is just not there to do it.”