Brace yourselves, holiday air travelers. History suggests you’re in for a rocky ride.The three weeks from mid-December through the New Year holiday are the most delay-prone period of the year at airports, according to a USA TODAY analysis of years of federal data and interviews with airport and airline officials.Christmastime actually isn’t the busiest of the year in the air, according to the analysis. The numbers of passengers and flights are substantially below those of the busiest days, which typically occur during the summer.
That may offer little comfort this season. A combination of winter storms — bad weather is the main cause of airline delays — and a flood of inexperienced travelers toting children and extra luggage can quickly turn airports into war zones of long lines and canceled flights.”It’s the perfect storm,” says Greg Wells, senior vice president for operations at Southwest Airlines, the nation’s largest domestic carrier.More travelers vying for seats and higher fares stemming from an improving economy also are likely to take some cheer out of air travel this year.The number of passengers over the holiday travel period — from Tuesday through Jan. 3 — will increase 3% this year from last to 43.6 million, the Air Transport Association of America estimates. Though still below the peaks hit several years ago, daily passenger volumes are expected to range from 1.7 million to 2.3 million during the holidays.Veteran business travelers such as Kathy Maynor of Homosassa, Fla., know the headaches of holiday travel all too well. Maynor, who plans to go on a trip the day after Christmas, usually adjusts her schedule in late December to make sure she has at least two hours between flight changes.Anything shorter, she says, and she runs the risk of being stuck at an unfamiliar airport because of weather delays and fighting for a seat on a new flight at a time when planes are flying nearly 100% occupied.”I haven’t had an empty seat next to me in months. I don’t expect that to change during the holidays,” Maynor says. “There are more flight delays due to the weather, and that makes travel more difficult. If you are stuck overnight, the airline sometimes won’t pick up the hotel bill.”Air travelers aren’t the only ones who can expect fuller planes, trains and buses this holiday. A steady economic recovery is giving the travel industry reason for optimism, and its forecast for the season reflects a broader uptick in travel that has been occurring in the past few months:•Rail.Amtrak doesn’t provide holiday forecasts but says it’s expecting an increase given its increasing ridership in October and November. It saw a 2.7% year-over-year increase in ridership during the Thanksgiving holidays, while its fiscal 2010 ridership grew 5.7% to a record 28.7 million.•Bus.Coach USA, one of the largest bus operators in the nation, says it’s expecting 10.5% growth in customers on its scheduled bus service for the holidays this season compared with last year. The estimate doesn’t include its 4-year-old brand Megabus, which is expecting a 40% to 50% increase in ridership, says Coach USA CEO Dale Moser. Greyhound, another big carrier, says travel volume on its buses will rise 40% in the week leading into Christmas compared with a typical week in December.•Auto. About 85.7 million people will drive to their year-end holiday destinations, up 3.2% from last year, AAA estimates. This is the fifth consecutive holiday period this year in which AAA has predicted an increase from the previous year.Weather a big challenge Air travel could be the most unpredictable method of holiday transportation this week.During the past week, snowstorms snarled upper Midwest hubs such as Minneapolis and Chicago, then moved across Ohio and to the East Coast. Thousands of flights — 1,400 in Chicago alone — were canceled. Many more were late.This week begins with forecasts of heavy rain, snow and strong winds in the Northwest, and significant rain in Southern California. At the end of the week, around Christmas Day, snow is predicted along the East Coast, potentially complicating the plans of weekend travelers.The chances of having your flight delayed rise significantly during the winter holiday season, data from the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics show.From 2003 through 2009, 22.3% of flights were late, canceled or diverted nationwide. The rate shot up to 33.4% for the winter holiday period during those same years. That means passengers during the winter holidays were nearly 50% more likely to have their travel itineraries disrupted.The delays are also more severe this time of year. They tend to be longer, and cancellations shoot up. A total of 1.8% of flights were canceled from 2003 through 2009. During the holidays, the rate jumped to 2.7%.Cancellations are rare but far more devastating to travel plans than simple delays. It can be difficult for airlines to find another seat for passengers whose flights are canceled, particularly when planes are full, which is the case during the holidays.Although warm-weather thunderstorms can delay thousands of flights and shut down airports in spring, summer and fall, flights can return to normal fairly quickly after storms pass, according to aviation experts and airline officials. The effects of major snowstorms tend to linger for days, they say.”During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, there is a pretty good chance that somewhere in the U.S. there will be a system with snow that hits one of the hubs,” says John Hansman, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied delays for years.The worst year for Christmastime air travel since 2001 was in 2008, when storms from Portland, Ore., to Chicago grounded flights and stranded thousands of passengers in the days before Christmas. During the holiday time that year, four flights out of 10 were late, nearly double the average for the year, according to federal data.”Weather is our biggest challenge” this time of year, says Southwest’s Wells.Summer the busiest of all In an attempt to gauge the likely experience of airline passengers during the holidays, USA TODAY examined federal and industry data on delays and flight schedules and interviewed airline officials and experts.According to the analysis, many assumptions about holiday travel simply aren’t true. For example, the Thanksgiving and winter holiday travel peaks are nowhere near as high as the busiest days of summer.The busiest day this year for Delta Air Lines, the world’s second-largest airline, was July 1, the Thursday before the July Fourth holiday, the carrier says. It carried 551,262 passengers that day. That’s about 30,000, or 5%, more than on Nov. 28, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the day the airline believes will be its busiest day during the Thanksgiving and winter holiday periods.On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, often hyped as the busiest day of the year at airports, the airline says it carried 482,000 passengers. Delta predicts it will carry up to 300,000 passengers a day during the period around Christmas.The total number of passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the nation’s busiest, was also higher on days in early July than during the Thanksgiving week, according to airport estimates.Though there is no definitive source of such data across the industry because carriers do not have to report daily passenger totals, other data sources show similar trends. Airlines schedule more flights during the peak days of summer, according to data from OAG Aviation Solutions. The Federal Aviation Administration also handled at least 2,000 more flights a day during summer 2009 than on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s.Another trend revealed by the analysis is that, unlike the winter holiday, flights tend to flow more smoothly during the time around Thanksgiving. From 2003 through 2009, 21% of flights were delayed on the key travel days around Thanksgiving, slightly better than the 22% of flights delayed overall during those years.‘Amateur’ travelers a problem Travelers shouldn’t let the numbers get in the way of the fact that airlines and airports can be stressed to the breaking point this time of year. Not only are planes packed, many of the people flying are inexperienced and are taking family along, which can slow security checkpoints and boarding.”They are not the seasoned travelers,” says Louis Miller, aviation general manager at Hartsfield. “That tends to put a burden on the airport.”Dave Simonson, a computer consultant from Antioch, Tenn., who plans to travel to Rochester, N.Y., says “amateur” travelers cause long lines at checkpoints. “Lots of families with kids, plenty of people who don’t know the rules. It takes much longer to get anything done,” he says.Simonson says the Transportation Security Administration, which conducts nearly all the security screening at the nation’s airports, should step up use of its “experience level” lines during the holiday. The lines let more-experienced travelers go through more-expedient lines than novices do.He also says, “They could also use more TSA people out at the lines just helping people get stuff in the scanners instead of just stridently telling folks to take stuff out,” he says.Airfares also are up, and hotels are no longer the buyers’ market they have been the last two years.The average cost of a round-trip domestic flight is $398, up 3% from 2009, according to Travelocity, the online booking site.Last week, American Airlines initiated a domestic airfare increase — $5 one way for flights over 500 miles ($10 round trip) and $3 one way for shorter flights ($6 round trip) — across the bulk of its routes. Its competitors soon matched the increases.The average daily rate for a hotel in the USA is $150 a night, up 4% from 2009.Despite the stress and headaches, some travelers — even Maynor of Homosassa, Fla. — find some cheer in holiday travel. Upgrading at hotels is easier as business travelers disappear from the road during the three holiday weeks, she says.Cal Lacasse, a consultant from Flower Mound, Texas, is another. He’s found what the numbers bear out and plans family travel around the holidays: “I have learned from my previous travels that traveling for Christmas, even to popular destinations, is relatively cheap and easy.” He’s taking the family to Hawaii this year. “Not as many crowds as one would think.”