Thanksgiving travel likely to be down

Air travelers
Travelers at an airport.
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Andra Skaalrud would like to be home with her family in Minneapolis for Thanksgiving, but the Boston University junior will be spending the holiday in Beantown with some fellow BU Terriers. Flying home to be with family wasn't in the cards. Not after Skaalrud considered what the trip would cost.

"We have a rather short break," Skaalrud said. "And for me, going home four days for how much it costs to fly home -- $600, $700, $800 -- it's really not worth it just for that short period of time."

Despite the cost, Skaalrud said it wasn't an easy choice.

"I miss my friends and family very much, I'm very sad I'm not going to get to see them," she said.

A lot fewer people will be flying this holiday season.

Traffic at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has been down all year, and airport spokesman Patrick Hogan expects that drop-off to continue over the holidays.

"We're seeing passenger levels about 6 to 7 percent below where they were last year in general," Hogan said. "And we expect that will hold true for the Thanksgiving holiday travel as well."

We're seeing passenger levels about six to seven percent below where they were last year in general. And we expect that will hold true for the Thanksgiving holiday travel as well.

Nationwide, air passenger traffic for the Thanksgiving holiday period is expected to be way down. From November 21 to December 2, the industry expects 2 million fewer passengers will fly than did last year. That's about a 10 percent drop, to 24 million. It's the first decline in Thanksgiving air travel in seven years. But, it comes as no surprise to the country's airlines.

"You sit here and read the paper, watch the TV ... every day somebody is announcing layoffs and people who are laid off are either business or leisure travelers," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the nation's airlines.

"All of this uncertainty in the marketplace has lead to fewer travelers for the holiday," Castelveter said.

Despite the decline in travel, folks who do fly won't find a lot of elbow room on planes. Castelveter said airlines have reduced their flights by about 10 percent overall compared with last year.

"Load factors -- or the percentage of seats filled -- will be about the same as they were last year for the same period," Castelveter said,"Eighty percent full over the course of the 12 days. And 90 to 100 percent full on the peak travel days, the most heavily traveled days."

Folks willing to fly on slow days for the airlines may land some good fares, even this close to the holiday. Airlines would rather get some money for those seats than see them fly empty.

Minneapolis-based travel expert Terry Trippler said travelers can save a lot if they're flexible and avoid peak days.

"You're going to travel round-trip to the coast for about $250, $275," Trippler said. "If you go peak days, you're going to travel for around $700, $725."

Back at Boston University, Andra Skaalrud has made T-day plans that involve her roommates from Maryland and Oregon and other friends who won't be going home for the holiday.

"We're throwing our own little Thanksgiving celebration," Skaalrud said. "We've got a bunch of strays out here. We have about eight people coming over."

Come Christmas, though, Skaalrud will be back in the Twin Cites.

"I'm coming home for Christmas on American. And I have to fly through Chicago, and I'm terrified I'm going to be stranded."

That trip will cost about $450.

It's not just air travel that will fall this Thanksgiving. The AAA auto club forecasts fewer Americans will be driving, despite the recent plunge in gasoline prices. AAA expects about a 1 percent decline in the number of Americans who will drive at least 50 miles from home during the holiday period.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.