Peaks and Lows in Thanksgiving Demand Cause Operational Challenges for US Airlines

The next week will see US Airlines come under tremendous pressure as the rush home for Thanksgiving on Thursday the 23rd November starts. Operations teams at every major airline will be looking at the weather forecast hoping for no unexpected changes in conditions and the FAA will be sweating on their IT systems staying up to avoid any blackouts. By Wednesday evening most travellers should have reached their destinations and aircraft will be bedding down for their usual evening’s rest, and the next day will be a quieter than normal day of operation for nearly everyone. 

The popular perception is that Thanksgiving, and indeed many such holidays, create a rush in demand, which they do, and an increase in supply, which isn’t always the case. The Thanksgiving holiday is one of the better examples of that, but such weeks are not necessarily the busiest overall. In the chart below we can see the weekly US domestic capacity for the two weeks before Thanksgiving week and the actual capacity for Thanksgiving week (week 47, commencing 20th Nov), which is down by nearly 4% vs the previous weeks. That might go against logic until you look at the devil in the detail.


The rush to get home for Thanksgiving, which has spawned many classic film plots over the years as family members arrive just in time for the carving of the turkey, is reflected in the day by day data, but there is quite a dramatic change in capacity at the end of the week, as everyone has finally reached their destinations. In weeks 45 and 46, domestic capacity was virtually unchanged day on day as we would expect, but the week of Thanksgiving creates a completely different profile with between seven and eight percent more capacity on offer on the Tuesday and Wednesday just before the big day. This represents an impressive level of growth over the normal pattern. Sunday the 26th November with some 3.06 million domestic seats becomes the busiest day of the year for domestic travel with four percent more seats than the previous week. Perhaps everyone wants to rush back to their own homes after Thanksgiving festivities are over!

In contrast to the pre- and post-Thanksgiving rush is the day itself. Thursday sees an incredible 40% reduction in capacity day on day, with the scheduled 1.7 million seats making Thanksgiving the quietest day of the year for domestic travel, some 20% lower than the second quietest day which was the 14th January. Such a dramatic change in capacity from one day to the next and then the immediate rebuild of capacity is very rare and certainly stretches the operational planning of airports and airlines, which must resource up for such an intense peak, then re-roster for the slowest day of the year before another peak occurs two days later; who said working in aviation was always fun!



Looking across the ten largest US domestic airlines there are some quite considerable differences in operating patterns and capacity adjustments. In percentage terms Allegiant has both the largest reduction in capacity and then, unsurprisingly, the largest rebuild in the space of a five-day period. Hawaiian are the least impacted, operating a near similar level of capacity through the holiday.


In recent years the pandemic has perhaps reduced the pressure on airlines and airports to get every traveller to their destination over the Thanksgiving holiday, but this year with the world free of travel restrictions it’s going to be very busy at all the major hub airports and somewhere in each of those facilities there will be operations teams constantly looking over their shoulders at the latest weather forecasts. Fingers crossed for clear skies and a happy holiday for all.


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