Blame the improving economy for Thanksgiving airport crowds

The number of people expected to travel at Thanksgiving has hit its highest levels since the economic downturn, possibly a sign that the economy - and the airline industry - is making a solid recovery. 

Todd Sumlin/The Charlotte Observer/AP
Amos Darnell looks for a shorter line at the security checkpoint at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C. More Thanksgiving holiday travelers are expected in 2015 than last year.

This Thanksgiving, you may consider giving thanks for the crowded flight you took to get to Grandmother's house; it means the economy is improving.

The number of travelers expected to fly to a turkey dinner this November has hit its highest level since the 2008 economic downturn, and it's a good sign that people are feel confident enough to buy tickets for a short holiday like Thanksgiving, reported Airlines for America (A4A), a trade group for the airline industry. 

"As competition continues to boost schedules and drive down airfares in 2015, customers are seeing more opportunities to fly during the holiday season," John Heimlich, vice president of A4A, said in a release. 

The expected ticket sales rose 3 percent over last year's, with around 25.3 million expected to fly during the Thanksgiving holiday, Consumer Affairs reported. That was already a 1.5 percent jump between 2013 and 2014, the Plain Dealer reported.

Low oil prices are another reason that Thanksgiving travelers can afford to travel home for the holiday. In addition to saving travelers money at the pump, low prices have helped keep airline fares more reasonable, Consumer Affairs reported.

For the first time in a long time this year, airlines have a complaint they can be happy about meeting. They are scheduling extra flights and using larger aircraft to carry more people to their Thanksgiving destinations, according to A4A. 

"Airlines are taking delivery of new, larger aircraft to accommodate the increase in passengers," Mr. Heimlich said in a release. 

This means passengers who have not purchased tickets yet are probably still safe. For the Thanksgiving travel season, which airlines define as being from Friday, Nov 20 through Tuesday, Dec. 1, the busiest days will be the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday and Monday afterward, in that order, according to A4A. 

The reason airlines can increase capacity so dramatically for the holiday season is telling, as well. The 10 largest US airlines roughly doubled their profit margins between 2014 and 2015, a result both of charging for baggage and other previously free services and the lower price of fuel, Consumer Affairs reported.

The ability of airlines to pivot for the Thanksgiving holiday season suggests that they are moving forward in a healthy recovery as an individual industry. Airlines took three years to reach pre-9/11 levels after 2001, and the economic downturn plus an increase in fuel prices forced a transformation into a leaner business, according to the US Department of Transportation. 

"With operations improving, airfares falling and new aircraft entering the fleet at a steady pace, 2015 has translated to an improving experience for airline customers," A4A's Heimlich said.

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