Holiday travel expected to increase compared to last season

With lifted Covid-19 restrictions and available vaccines, airports are expected to be bustling with travelers as the holiday season approaches.

Nearly 63 percent of all Americans aged 18 or older will travel for at least one holiday this year, and nearly 43 percent of all Americans aged 18 or older feel more comfortable traveling this holiday season than last, according to a survey conducted by Eric Jones, co-founder of The Vacationer, a website that provides travel guides and research. 

In November 2020, amid the pandemic, more than 2 million passengers traveled through O’Hare International Airport and over 600,000 passengers traveled through Chicago Midway International. By contrast, over 6 million  passengers used O’Hare, while around 1.6 million passengers used Midway in November 2019, according to the ChicagoTribune.

The expected increase in travel raises concerns for how effectively airlines and airports will be able to handle the demand, especially in the wake of over 2,000 flight cancellations from Southwest Airlines between Oct. 8 and Oct. 13.

Southwest Airlines being short-staffed and experiencing poor weather played a key factor in the major delays and cancellations, according to an Oct. 13 Southwest Airlines press release.

“The past several weeks have been horrendous with airlines unable to deal with relatively minor weather problems without causing a service meltdown,” said Joseph Schweiterman, a professor in DePaul’s Graduate School of Public Service and Director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. “Both the recent American and Southwest disruptions were very disheartening since it took them days to recover from what should’ve been a single-day problem.”

Schweiterman is hopeful that the airlines will learn from these cancellations and provide better service during the holidays — if the weather permits.

On Nov. 5, the number of Southwest Airlines canceled flights was back down to 26, according to flight tracking service FlightAware, but Schweiterman worries those numbers will rise again with a surge in holiday travel and weather changes.

“I think airlines know that Thanksgiving is going to push them to the max with their labor shortages and will learn from their past mistakes,” Schweiterman said. “Unless we have a serious weather problem, Thanksgiving should blow pretty smoothly.”

Schweiterman suggests the easiest way to solve the problems airlines are facing is to cut flights back by 5 to 7 percent.  For those traveling this season, he encourages keeping an open mind and avoiding flights that have connections that are less than an hour and 15 minutes.

“Go to the airport with the attitude that you may be stuck there for a while,” Schweiterman said. “Bring food, something to read. It’s partly a mindset you need when things get difficult to avoid letting it ruin your holiday.”

For some DePaul students, the return of in-person classes also signals the return of holiday travel.

Tessyi Dewhurst, a second-year video and film production student, will be flying back to Denver after finals, returning to Chicago two weeks later for work and making one more trip to Denver before winter quarter begins.

Dewhurst’s mother is a flight attendant for United Airlines, which enables her to fly “stand-by” — if there is an open seat on a flight, she could board the plane without paying for a ticket. This is how Dewhurst usually flies. However, given the expected rise in travel this season, she bought tickets well in advance to ensure she has a seat on her flights.

“My flying experience is not normal compared to most people’s,” Dewhurst said. “I’ve flown enough that I don’t stress out about flying as much.”

Dewhurst has learned from her years of flying experience to prepare the day before your flight to avoid running late.

“Make sure you have everything packed the night before,” Dewhurst said. “It sounds silly, but you don’t want to be rushing right before you [leave for] the airport and leave something important behind. To be early is to be on time. If you’re on time, you’re already late.”

Mackenzie Cowan, a junior in the film program, will also be flying home during break. The Naples, Florida, native said that she’s not nervous about the trip home.

“Florida has always been kind of like a war zone, so I’m used to it,” Cowan said. “I’m careful and always wear my mask.”

Cowan said she also plans on flying back to Chicago in between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“It does scare me with the amount of people on the flight,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh no, I don’t want anyone to sit next to me!’”

Josephine Stratman contributed reporting.