Frank Polich/Getty Images
Passengers walk to the TSA check-in inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Nov. 25. Aviation experts say even if the weather cooperates, passengers should be prepared for crowded flights over the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Passengers walk to the TSA check-in inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Nov. 25. Aviation experts say even if the weather cooperates, passengers should be prepared for crowded flights over the Christmas and New Year's holidays. Frank Polich/Getty Images
The days between Christmas and New Year's are among the busiest travel days of the year. But if the airline industry's projections come to pass, this will be the second holiday season in a row where the number of people flying has decreased.
The airlines expect to serve about a million fewer passengers this year compared with last year, which is 5 million fewer than the year before that.
Still, that doesn't make it any more likely you'll have an empty seat next to you on your flight. In fact, airlines have cut the number of flights so much that planes actually have become more crowded. It's a trend that many passengers noticed this week as they traveled for the holidays.
On Tuesday, Debbie Castle met her daughter at the Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina, as she flew in from California, and her son, Philip Kiracofe, who came in from New York City.
Kiracofe, who is 6 feet, 6 inches tall, said his flight was especially tight.
"Every seat was taken, so we were kind of crunched up," he says. "But, unfortunately, I think the airlines are getting much more efficient, so that's not so good for me as a consumer, but I think it's better probably for the airlines."
Indeed, airlines have cut the number of flights about 6 percent from last year, and the remaining flights in the air are about 80 percent full. Not only does that mean passengers will be packed more tightly, but boarding may take longer, and travel expert Christopher Elliott says you can expect more competition for carry-on baggage space.
"The No. 1 reason why people fight on a plane is over luggage, and the holidays is the worst time," he says. "Everyone wants to cram their holiday presents into the overhead bins. So if you're the last person on the plane, there's probably not going to be room for your one carry-on because everyone will have taken up that overhead space."
Elliott, a columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine, says carry-on luggage squabbles have become more common now that most airlines are charging for checked bags. People who haven't flown since last Christmas should be prepared for higher bag fees, as well as fees for food, pillows and almost every other onboard amenity. Elliott says most airlines even are charging a special "holiday fee" just for flying at Christmastime.
"At a time of year like this, when everybody's talking about being nice and being charitable, when you have an airline that charges you extra for just about everything, it is not endearing the airlines to their passengers," he says.
As is typical around the holidays, airfares have gone up in recent weeks, though airlines have waived advance purchase requirements on some flights so last-minute ticket buyers can get the same discounts available to people who buy a couple weeks in advance.
And Erik Torkells of TripAdvisor.com says there are hotel deals to be found as well — hotels, like airlines, are responding to the drop in the number of travelers.
"Well, airlines can ground planes, they cut routes," Torkells says. "That affects supply and demand. Hotels can't do that as easily. They can't just close off the west wing of the hotel. So consequently, getting somebody in that room for maybe less than they hoped is better than having nobody in that room."
There will be a lot of empty hotel rooms this holiday season if what's happening at Maupin Travel is typical. The North Carolina-based agency is one of the oldest and biggest in Raleigh, and owner Tony Maupin says this holiday season has been especially quiet.
"Probably this has been our slowest season since our doors have been open, and that's back in 1979," he says. "People call and say, 'You know, my husband or I just lost my job, I can't travel this year' or 'Could you put me closer to home?' or 'Can you do it less expensive this year than last year?' "
Maupin says overall, business is down about 25 percent from last year, and he says as Christmas approaches, his customers have shown less interest in things like cruises, trips overseas or other kinds of fun holiday getaways.
He says much of the travel he is booking this month is for what you might call "obligation trips," the family visits that people feel they have to make around the holidays — even if money is tight.