Thanksgiving Prompts Surge In US Air Passengers

Unsurprisingly, the United States saw a growth in passenger numbers over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. The week, the best since March for carriers, was not as exceptional as airlines had previously hoped, but it was still a healthy week in the grand scheme of the ongoing crisis.

Airlines had a pretty good Thanksgiving for 2020, but the holiday was bogged down over a worsening public health crisis. Photo: Getty Images

How many people flew over Thanksgiving?

Since November 20th, millions of people got onboard an aircraft for Thanksgiving. The official daily breakdown is as follows:

  • Friday, November 20th: 1,019,836
  • Saturday, November 21st: 984,369
  • Sunday, November 22nd: 1,047,934
  • Monday, November 23rd: 917,354
  • Tuesday, November 24th: 912,090
  • Wednesday, November 25th: 1,070,967
  • Thursday, November 26th: 560,902
  • Friday, November 27th: 820,399
  • Saturday, Novmeber 28th: 964,630
  • Sunday, November 29th: 1,176,091

Sunday, November 29th, was the busiest day in air travel since March, with nearly 1.2 million travelers getting onboard planes.

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2020 Thanksgiving numbers
Thanksgiving travel numbers for 2020. Data: TSA | Graph: Simple Flying

Between March 17th and November 19th, the United States saw one million passengers in one day only once on October 18th. Over Thanksgiving, four days in the span of one week saw over one million passengers pass through TSA security checkpoints in a single day.

The busiest days around Thanksgiving are usually the Saturday and Sundays after Thanksgiving and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Last year, the Sunday after Thanksgiving saw nearly 2.9 million passengers in one day, while the other two mentioned days saw over 2.6 million passengers in one day.

The last real good day for the Thanksgiving holiday is Monday, November 30th. While numbers were not available at the time of writing, they will likely end up being between 900,000 and 1,050,000 passengers.

How does this compare to 2019?

This year, in these 10 days, 9,474,572 passengers got onboard an aircraft. In 2019, 23,470,382 passengers flew over the same ten-day span. This is about 40% of what it was last year, and it is in line with where the industry’s recovery is at in the United States.

2020 vs 2019
Thanksgiving 2020 vs. Thanksgiving 2019. Data: TSA | Graph: Simple Flying

Was this expected?

Airlines were certainly hoping for a better Thanksgiving than they got. The one thing that is difficult to predict with these numbers is how many people changed or canceled their travel plans over the stark warnings from public health officials to amend their travel plans.

There was some healthy demand for Thanksgiving early on. However, in early October, airlines started to pull back some Thanksgiving schedules. In November, the story was mixed. There were some airlines that added flights for Thanksgiving, including JetBlue.

Passengers getty
Thanksgiving is a heavy week for leisure passengers heading to visit family. Photo: Getty Images

Most of this traffic is domestic. Thanksgiving is an enormous VFR (visiting friends and relatives) travel period with plenty of people heading home or to visit friends. Any demand not covered by family travel is likely to sun destinations across the United States, and some short-haul international demand. Long-haul international demand remains incredibly low amid continued border restrictions, quarantine requirements, and an unwillingness to travel.

What about December?

It is difficult to predict exactly how December will turn out. There is no playbook for how demand will return in an ongoing pandemic. Airlines have recently revised their December outlook, expecting the month to be weaker than expected amid lower bookings and increased cancellations.

December travel demand is also slowing down. Photo: Getty Images

December, however, will still have some good parts for carriers. From mid-December onwards, ski season really starts to pick up. And with the timing of the Christmas holiday leading up to a weekend, there will likely be plenty of people willing to travel. How many, however, remains to be seen.

Did you fly over the Thanksgiving holiday? Do you have travel plans for December? Let us know in the comments!