The holiday travel rush hit its peak Friday as mild weather and lower flight cancelation rates raised hopes for merrier drivers and airline passengers than last year.
U.S. airlines are predicting a blockbuster holiday season and have projected confidence they can handle the crowds after hiring thousands of pilots, flight attendants and other workers, seeking to avoid the delays and suspensions that marred travel last year and culminated with the Southwest Airline debacle that stranded more than 2 million people.
Airlines have canceled just 1.2% of U.S. flights so far this year, the lowest in five years, but bad weather is always a threat. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has warned the government will be holding the airlines accountable to operate smoothly and treat passengers well if there are disruptions. Earlier this week, Transportation Department announced a settlement in which Southwest will pay $140 million for its meltdown last year.
Some 70 flights had been cancelled in the U.S by early Friday evening and about 3,480 had been delayed, according to FlightAware.
The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.6 million passengers on Thursday, which had been projected to be one of the busiest travel days, along with Friday and New Year’s Day. That’s short of the record 2.9 million that agents screened on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, since travel tends to be more spread over over Christmas and New Year’s.
Travel has been strong this year — surpassing pre-pandemic levels — even though many Americans say they are worried about the economy. The TSA has already screened 12.3% more travelers than it had by this time last year and 1.4% more than in 2019.
Robert Lake said he hoped taking a pre-dawn flight from Atlanta International Airport would help him beat the crowds Friday but found the world’s busiest airport was already packed in the wee hours.
“It was very hectic. I got to my boarding area, like, maybe just minutes before the plane took off,” Lake said after arriving in Tampa to go to a cruise for the holidays. “I cut it way too close.”