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Holiday travel: Fewer fliers, but crowded planes anyway

December 14, 2012|By Jane Engle
  • This traveler catches a nap while waiting in the international terminal at LAX on Dec. 23 last year. Although fewer people will be flying this year, planes will be fuller, because of reduced capacity.
This traveler catches a nap while waiting in the international terminal… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

For the second year in a row, fewer people are expected to fly during the Christmas-New Year’s period, according to Airlines for America, the major trade group for the industry. But don’t count on less crowded skies. Planes will fly fuller as carriers cut capacity to avoid being left with unsold seats, the organization said Thursday.

Hate to scramble for a seat or overhead bin space? Don’t fly Dec. 21-23, Dec. 26 or Jan. 2, expected to be the busiest travel days of the season.

In a teleconference, John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist for Washington, D.C.-based Airlines for America, said nearly 42 million people would fly from Dec. 17 to Jan. 6, down nearly 1% from the comparable period last year and also fewer than in 2010.

“We still have a relatively tepid albeit growing economy with high unemployment levels, and carriers have adjusted [capacity] downward to accommodate slightly fewer folks,” Heimlich said. As a result, during the 21-day holiday travel period, airlines expect to fill about 86% of their seats, on average, versus 85% last year. Peak days could see planes fly 90% full, he said.

Heimlich would not forecast holidays fares. But clearly, you’re apt to do better on slower days. For instance, heading to the airport on Christmas Day, traditionally one of the season’s less traveled times, may pay off. A search on United Airlines’ website Thursday morning showed one-way nonstop fares as low as $87 from Los Angeles to Denver for Christmas. For Dec. 21, the lowest fare was $266. (Seats at these fares may no longer be available.)  

If you take a short flight on Christmas Day, or head from east to west, you may be able to easily make it to your destination in time for the family feast – and with extra cash to score a gift or two at the airport. Now that’s a happy holiday.

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