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U.S. Airlines Manage Record Thanksgiving Surge with Relative Smoothness

Despite record-setting passenger volumes, U.S. airlines largely outperformed 2022 operational metrics.

An overview of aircraft movements at New York LaGuardia Airport. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

On Monday, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) confirmed that Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023 was its busiest day on record. The agency saw 2,907,378 people pass through its checkpoints, up from both 2019 and 2022.

Even with record-setting volumes, U.S. airlines largely navigated operational performance with ease. On the heels of post-COVID woes, airlines collectively outperformed 2022 on-time performance (OTP) metrics.

Busiest Day for U.S. Air Travel

From Nov. 21-26, the TSA screened a total of 14,624,780 individuals, which represents a 3% increase over 2019. According to Cirium Diio data, U.S. airlines had offered 3,070,965 seats and 22,033 flights on Sunday, a 2023 capacity record.

Other comparable days for TSA screening records are June 30, 2023 and Dec. 1, 2019, each seeing slightly less than 2.9 million checkpoint throughputs. Sunday represents the first time this metric exceeded 2.9 million in a single day.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines – which is the world’s largest airline – reported its highest-ever load factor for the Thanksgiving holiday period, transporting nearly 6.5 million passengers. The airline’s capacity was up 4% year-over-year.

Positive Performance Despite Headwinds

U.S. airlines weren’t dealt the easiest set of cards this Thanksgiving. Wind and rain in the Northeast on Wednesday hampered some flights, while a snowstorm took place in the Midwest on Sunday.

On Sunday, U.S. airlines collectively reported a 99.8% completion factor (CF), according to an Anuvu Pulse dashboard. The on-time arrivals (A14) rate was at 71%.

JetBlue was the only airline reported in the dashboard to not cancel any flights on Sunday, November 26. Frontier canceled the most flights, accounting for just over 1% of its planned operation. Across the board, 42 total cancellations were reported.

Alaska, Delta, and United had the highest rates of on-time arrivals at over 75%. All three airlines also came out on top in terms of on-time departures (D0).

In terms of individual airports, Seattle (SEA), Boston (BOS), and Philadelphia (PHL) reported four cancellations each, the highest in Anuvu’s dashboard. The top-performing airport in terms of on-time departures was Salt Lake City (SLC) at nearly 73%.

Looking at the second-busiest day on Wednesday, data from OAG indicates that on-time performance improved by 1% year-over-year. Several airlines saw fewer cancellations than what was reported in 2022.

Both Delta and United were the only two mainline U.S. carriers to achieve over 90% on-time performance across their domestic networks, according to the travel data provider. Southwest Airlines slipped from the third spot in 2022 to fifth this year.

Looking Ahead

Recent operational meltdowns have put many U.S. airlines on notice. While weather and air traffic control constraints have acted as catalysts for operational woes, internal constraints have only compounded these issues. In recent months, airlines have been working more diligently to improve operational performance.

“I’m very pleased with our strong improvements in operational performance and very appreciative of our Southwest Warriors. We saw broad-based improvements in our operating metrics, which were recognized by our customers through increased trip Net Promoter Scores,” said Southwest COO Andrew Watterson in the company’s third-quarter earnings call. The airline displaced over two million passengers following an operational meltdown in late December 2022.

With the December holidays approaching, airlines will be watched closely by consumers and regulators alike, according to a Politico report.

Ryan Ewing
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  • Ryan Ewing

    Ryan founded AirlineGeeks.com back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport/airline operations while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with an MBA. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. Ryan works for AirlineGeeks' owner FLYING Media, spearheading coverage in the commercial aviation space.

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