Holiday Travel: Despite Cancellations Tied to Omicron, Expect Christmas Flights To Surpass Thanksgiving

Happy family with two children going on holiday, wearing face masks at the airport.
Halfpoint / Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you’re traveling by air over the Christmas holidays, you can expect flights to be nearly as crowded as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. You can also expect unease over the spreading Omicron variant, so be sure to pack your mask and consider a vaccination if you haven’t gotten one yet.

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A record number of travelers passed through U.S. airports over the Thanksgiving holiday, Travel & Leisure reported, and the Transportation Security Administration expects “near pre-pandemic travel volumes” to continue through the Christmas season.

On Tuesday, Dec. 14, United Airlines said it expects to fly more passengers each day during the year-end holidays than it did over Thanksgiving, even amid a rise in the number of COVID cases tied to Omicron.

United forecast that it will fly an average of 420,000 passengers a day from Dec. 16 through Jan. 3, CNBC reported. That’s up from an average of 400,000 a day during Thanksgiving and will bring the airline to about 87% of the number of travelers it flew in 2019, pre- pandemic.

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Industrywide, about 2 million travelers are expected to pass through U.S. airports each day over the Christmas holiday, or roughly 80% of 2019 levels, according to Hopper, a travel data and research firm.

In other words, expect airports and flights to be busy, folks.

“We see a strengthening in the airline travel industry toward pre-pandemic levels and our goal is to ensure you as the passenger have a safe and secure flight,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement on Tuesday. “We work hard with our airport and airline partners to achieve this by ensuring screening operations meet the upcoming demand.”

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Even amid all the optimism, the airline industry still faces plenty of challenges. As of early December, airlines have canceled 2.9% of their flights worldwide through Feb. 1, 2022 due to the Omicron variant, Bloomberg reported.

The variant has led to new travel restrictions that have put the brakes on a full recovery in international flights, Reuters reported, and contributed to delays and other problems in some regions of the world.

Meanwhile, leading airline stocks have been sluggish of late. Shares of United, American Airlines, Delta Airlines and Southwest Airlines have all either seen slight dips or gone sideways this month, even as the Dow and S&P 500 have notched minor gains.

For travelers, things should be fairly close to business as usual, or at least what qualifies as “usual” these days. Dr. Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Travel + Leisure that travelers should take precautions such as getting vaccinated and wearing masks.

“Everybody has different risk tolerances. There are things you can do to reduce your risk,” she said. “You can get vaccinated, you can get a booster shot, you can use rapid tests to make sure you’re not infectious.”

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