There was something curious about the US Transportation Security Administration’s data on passenger traffic at airports last month. The Sunday after Thanksgiving was, as usual, very busy, with 2.6 million people screened at security checkpoints. That’s the most on any single day since the pandemic began, and evidence that many people are back to traveling again. But other historical patterns didn’t hold. The Friday before Turkey Day, almost a week ahead of the holiday, was busier than the equivalent day in 2019 and almost as busy as the day before the holiday—traditionally the peak travel day of the year. People are traveling again, but not in the ways they used to.
Airlines had predicted that Thanksgiving travel would be weird. Between pent-up travel demand, sky-high ticket prices, and flexible work-from-home schedules, some people chose to fly at different times than in previous years. And carriers are forecasting similar pattern-breaking travel during the December holidays, stretching from now through Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, and past New Year’s Day. “The bookings are a little bit different this year,” Andrew Nocella, United Airlines’ executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said in October during a call with investors. “They’re more spread out across multiple days than they were in the past.”
In other words, the great holiday rush has become the great holiday mush, more a blob of intensified travel than a burst of large spikes. A survey conducted by consultants Deloitte found that American travelers are adding an average of six days to their seasonal trips this year because of flexible work arrangements. With remote work seemingly here to stay, the way some people travel during the holidays has perhaps changed forever. They can now skip the most hectic and fraught days of the travel season—and perhaps save a little money doing so.
A holiday scramble that is more dispersed, with lower peaks, is also Christmas music to airlines’ ears. “We can become much more efficient because demand is regularly high at all periods,” Robert Isom, the CEO of American Airlines, said at an event hosted by the travel news site Skift in November. That means airlines and hotels, still short of pilots and cleaners and attendants, may not need to turn over planes and rooms as quickly as during a traditional holiday crunch. And less intense competition between passengers for seats or rooms on specific days might mean companies can take more bookings overall. “This is going to help us operationally,” Ed Bastian, the CEO of United Airlines, said as he explained the phenomenon to investors this fall.
Less happily, the changes could mean fewer breaks for travel workers. “It makes the holidays a bit harder,” Sara Nelson, the president of 50,000-member labor union the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement. “We used to plan our own holidays and work schedules around typical travel patterns. Now, flights are full all the time. This makes it hard to get to work or utilize the benefits that come with our jobs.”
Why is the holiday travel blob manifesting now? It’s the collision of three trends in the way people are traveling and working in the wake of pandemic-era lockdowns and restrictions.
One is the growth in remote or hybrid work. Fourteen percent of US full-time employees are fully remote, according to a recent survey, and 29 percent work outside the office a few days a week. Two, many people have a pandemic hangover that expresses itself not through an urge to lie down, as most hangovers do, but in a desire to get out, whether to visit Mom or see the world. And three, supply constraints—in airplane seats on flights still operating curtailed schedules, car rentals, and hotel rooms—are driving up prices and pushing some people to consider traveling on non-peak days. “If people find a better deal to travel on a Monday or a Tuesday or a Wednesday and they have the flexibility to do that, they will,” says Vik Krishnan, a partner with McKinsey who consults clients in the aviation, travel, and aerospace industries.