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A United 777-300ER touching down at Paine Field after a test flight. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Bailey)

United Adds Flights Ahead of Projected Demand Spike

United Airlines announced on Monday that it would be adding 1,400 flights to its domestic schedule over the course of the week of Nov. 23, bolstering its offerings in preparation for hundreds of thousands more travelers to take to the skies during what is traditionally one of the busiest travel periods of the year.

The airline said it expects 50% of Thanksgiving week travelers to book flights within a month of departure, a 10% increase from the same period last year. The trend is a visible effect of the uncertainty of travel as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic as case counts in the U.S. continued to sit near record highs and cities and states began to reassess more measures to curb the virus’ spread.

Even still, United said it expected to see more customers travel to both warm weather and ski destinations across the U.S., with Florida, Hawaii, Colorado, and Montana seeing the lion’s share of the traffic during the period.

“We know that for many customers, this holiday season may be their first time back on a plane since the start of the pandemic, and we’re committed to helping provide flexibility and a safer, clean, travel experience,” United Vice President of Network Planning Ankit Gupta said in a statement. “While this holiday travel season looks quite different than recent years, we’re continuing to follow the same playbook we have all year long – watching the data and adding more flights, adjusting schedules and leveraging larger aircraft to give customers more ways to reunite with family or reach their destinations.”

The airline also said it is currently slated to operate 52% of its domestic schedule in December compared to the same month in 2019, which is just slightly more than the 49% operational figures it expects to post in November. The November numbers, however, will be bolstered greatly by Thanksgiving week, when the airline said it expects to operate over 200 more flights than normal on expected peak days.

Most of those flights will be intended to bring customers to the airline’s target destinations, including warm weather hotspots like Florida and Hawaii and popular leisure destinations up and down the Rockies.

A United 737-800 in San Francisco (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ben Suskind)

The Next Big Week

The Thanksgiving holiday, which this year doesn’t quite reach into December usually features high air travel numbers on the back of both students traveling home and leisure travelers visiting family and taking time away from home for the holidays. But this year, it may be one of the airline industry’s first true tests amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the busy summer travel season is spaced out and travel comes less in fits and spurts — other than certain holidays like Independence Day — the Thanksgiving travel season is effectively a five-to-nine-day period during which demand will skyrocket than plummet. That period, which will effectively begin the Friday before Thanksgiving, will be punctuated by two of the busiest travel days of the year on the Wednesday before the holiday and the Sunday after.

Airlines are also operating with much more uncertainty than years past. And even as airlines begin to officially ramp up their schedules as United has done today, airlines will likely have to pull a number of aircraft out of storage to satisfy the vast breadth of demand that may come in less than two weeks.

But unlike a normal year, there’s no promise of demand between the busy Thanksgiving travel period and the one spanning Christmas and New Years, meaning airlines may be left with dozens of aircraft sitting around for those two to three weeks without much of a workload.

But if airlines can figure out how to strike a middle ground between those two, they will likely be able to post fourth-quarter results that are emblematic of the success they may have over the course of late November and late December.

Parker Davis
Parker Davis
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