• The US Transportation Security Administration screened over 2.5 million air travelers on Sunday.
  • The week's numbers still lag behind 2019 passenger volumes, and high airfares and inflation may be to blame.
  • Travel analyst Henry Harteveldt applauded airlines for their on-time performance over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Thanksgiving holiday was a busy week for travel, but crowds were still below pre-pandemic levels

Before the pandemic reshaped the aviation industry as we know it, Thanksgiving was the US' busiest holiday for air travel. In fact, the US Transportation Security Administration screened over 2.8 million passengers on December 1, 2019 — the Sunday after Thanksgiving — and it was the most the agency had ever seen in its history.

However, 2020 proved to be a risky year for flying due to COVID, and the TSA saw record-low numbers as millions of people opted to stay home. In 2021, travel started to rebound with passenger numbers reaching the millions, and the trend has continued into 2022 as volumes break pandemic records.

TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein posted on Twitter Monday that the agency screened 2,560,623 travelers on Sunday, marking "the highest checkpoint volume since the start of the pandemic."

Airlines knew it would be a busy week as travel agency Hopper estimated 25 million seats would be flying over the holiday. United Airlines told Insider that it flew more than 476,000 customers on Sunday, and the Thanksgiving holiday period was the carrier's third-busiest behind 2018 and 2019.

Despite the travel optimism, passenger numbers are still lower than in 2019. Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider that volumes were down 2.4% compared to 2021, and high airfare and the state of the economy may be to blame.

"Some people may have looked at the airfares and decided to drive to their destination because the fares were simply too expensive," he explained. "And we can't ignore the unstable economy and inflation which has sent the cost of everyday goods soaring and has eaten into many people's discretionary budgets, leaving them less money to travel by air."

According to Hopper, the 2022 average airfare from November 20 to November 24 was $350 for roundtrip domestic flights. This is a 43% increase compared to 2021, and 22% higher than in 2019.

Over previous holiday weekends, like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, carriers canceled or delayed thousands of flights, blaming staffing shortages, weather, and air traffic control for the chaos. 

However, according to FlightAware data, United only canceled 47 flights from Monday through Sunday. Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines canceled 31, Southwest Airlines canceled 24, and American Airlines only canceled 13.

Although the historically unreliable holiday flight operations may have scared people away from flying over Thanksgiving, Harteveldt told Insider the successful week is a win for US carriers.

"Airlines have a responsibility to their customers and to their employees to operate the schedules as close to on time as they can in order to help rebuild trust in the air transportation network," he said. "And I think it helps that the Department of Transportation has been so vocal." 

Harteveldt noted Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has put pressure on carriers to perform, especially with the agency's newly published airline customer service dashboard.

"They have to continue to operate reliably during the next few weeks, during the Christmas and New Year's period, and throughout 2023 and beyond," Harteveldt told Insider.

Read the original article on Business Insider