Is Every Travel Day About to Become Like Thanksgiving Travel?

Via Tyler Cowen, the ‘Thanksgiving rush’ is something that many airports already experience at least one day a week, and some major airports regularly experience twice every week.

According to the group’s analysis, a true “Thanksgiving rush” involves passenger volumes that run between 108 percent and 259 percent above an average day.

..Of the 30 busiest U.S. airports (accounting for 70 percent of total U.S. passenger flow), 13 already feel like the day before Thanksgiving one day a week on average. Three airports — Midway, Las Vegas McCarran, and Orlando International — suffer those levels of congestion twice a week. Worse yet, the capacity improvements that are currently slated won’t help much. Within six years, the study notes, 27 of the 30 busiest airports will be Thanksgiving-busy at least once a week.

The piece argues that tens of billions need to be spend on airports, and notes that Singapore’s Changi airport has a facility charge of over $15 while in the US these charges are capped at $4.50.

But it’s not quite that easy. Because busy airports aren’t the problem, and more airport spending isn’t a panacea.

  1. Increasing airport costs drives away airlines, either to alternative airports (high cost Miami leads carriers to flee for low cost Ft Lauderdale) or out of the market entirely (low cost carriers setting pricing, rather than network carriers).
  2. Airport infrastructure projects in the US have little record of being particularly good investments. Washington Dulles built a train that stops where they plan to eventually build a terminal rather than where there’s currently a terminal — with no likelihood in sight of that new terminal being built soon. Miami is expensive because of massive capital investment, but that hasn’t made it a good airport, it’s one travelers want to avoid.

The notion that passengers or aviation are under-taxed is highly misleading. US domestic tickets are assessed a 7.5% tax, but the funds aren’t then dedicated to capital projects. The last budget deal increased ‘security fees’ but the revenue stream then plus the deficit.

Besides, merely having a ‘busier than usual airport’ tells us little about the ‘frustrating Thanksgivig experience’. Rather than a lot of passengers through a facility, there are specific issues that aren’t all or primarily airport issues.

  • Difficulty finding on-airport parking
  • Long security lines (we just raised security taxes while TSA has made a mess of precheck; the TSA administrator says we should abolish liquids rules but he hasn’t done so and won’t)
  • Packed planes (we’re at historically high load factors now, airlines have exercised capacity discipline, they’re finally making money and there’s little stupid money dumping capacity into markets)
  • Not only are planes full, but that means there’s little slack in the system for irregular operations. If your flight is cancelled or you misconnect it’s hard to get re-routed to where you’re going.
  • More leisure travelers and fewer business travelers. That means inexperienced travelers who don’t know the drill at security, crowd the gate, and board inefficiently.

Little of that has anything to do airport capital investment, which tends to spread out the airport.. building off-site rental car facilities… sprawling complexes that can lengthen travel times and frustrate passengers even more.

Meanwhile, there are some projects even now that seem to go quite well under current financing arrangements. San Francisco generally, the new LAX International (Tom Bradley) terminal, the Delta terminal at JFK (much of those dollars are Delta’s).

I’m not suggesting US airports are in fine shape, some are very bad. But it’s not clear that busy airports are the biggest problem in travel, or the most frustrating.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Since I’m not a frequent traveler, my experiences are very limited. However, the local situation wasn’t to well planned out. An all weather runway was built at Lambert-Lambert Airport and still both flights and passengers lag behind when TWA had gates. Over in IL and also served by light rail like Lambert, is the MidAmerica Airport. Beside being a potential USAF (Scott) air base if necessary, currently no airline is a tenant and a plan to ship perishable fruit to China never got off the ground.

  2. Just trying to read between the lines a bit, it seems to me that people with a whole lot to gain from airport infrastructure projects are pushing this study.

    The definition of a true “Thanksgiving rush” starts at 108% of the average passenger load? That’s a pretty low threshold, isn’t it? It seems to me you’d reach that just by absolutely routine fluctuation. And looking at the article itself, “Passenger volumes are expected to increase 2.2 percent on average between now and 2033.” That’s a reason for panic?

    I’m not saying no projects are needed anywhere, but this seems overdone to me.

  3. This “study” is crap marketing material for people with a whole lot to gain from airport infrastructure projects (thanks DaveS) financed by an increase in per-ticket fee.

    There is zero correlation between airport facilities charges and airport quality. London charges USD 66.10 for every departure to the US, and the airport is a nightmare to depart from or connect in.

    Airport’s main source of revenue is from the airlines, not from the passengers. Singapore is a great airport because of Singapore’s government policies and spending on infrastructure MAINTENANCE and upgrades, not because of the way they split airport revenues between airlines and what’s on a passenger ticket.

  4. I must share that I enjoyed my best Thanksgiving flight ever, tonight. The entire airport had parking overflow, so i was routed to their economy lot, also full so they pointed a little further down to a lawn. ?. But hey, its a $10 lawn vs the normal $98 cement.. For 6 days, and a shuttle was waiting immediately and took us to security WHERE THERE WAS NO LINES. (NEVER SEEN B4 AT A INTERNATL AIRPORT. FLL- SEA. Everyone was boarded by a half hour early. Alaska Air has great new seats with side-adjustable face-rests, and PLUG-INS AND USB PORTS For all your devices. They got all the children off on a good note with free color books to look at, and crayons 15 minutes later. Beverage service 3 times. And periodic updates on the Seahawks game.

  5. I would add another reason for the jam up: peak travel periods during the day when all the airlines show up at the same time. You bring all the planes in at the same time, you’re going to have all the passengers flooding the airport at the same time.

    This is less of an issue at the super hub airports like JFK, ORD, ATL, and even LAX, etc…airports where there are no down times. But for an airport like SFO you can tell when it’s peak time and when it isn’t by the amount of takeoffs and landings during a particular hour.

    If the airlines spread out their arrivals and departures more that might make a difference to airport congestion. Of course that would basically destroy the selling point of the hub and spoke system so they’ll never do it.

  6. I have not seen the answer to this anywhere and I can see the reason why not but why aren’t there flights in the middle of the night? Say a 2 AM DFW-BWI or 4 AM NYC-LAS or 3 AM PHX-SFO?

    The reasons I can think of are crew fatigue, cost of airport ops (to include terminal shops-food-drink), noise. Are there any other reasons?

  7. @Mo There certainly are flights departing in the middle of the night at quite a few airports abroad where flight times and connections make operations a 24-hour activity. The Indira Gandhi airport at Delhi, India, for example has more than 50 daily departures between 1 a.m. and 5 many parts of the globe. The basic question is, will a certain schedule be profitable? Carriers in the U.S. think not, probably in part for the reasons you identify, as well as lack of demand.

  8. LAX Terminal 1 is pre-Thanksgiving every day since they closed off 30% of the floor space for major construction. It was packed as could be the day before Thanksgiving, but even normal days are very crowded now.

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