Winter Solstice Travel: Looking Ahead Despite Last Year’s Difficulties

The skies clear for a spike in travel as the holiday season approaches, signaling the arrival of winter and the coming of joyous festivities.

It’s starting to resemble a busy holiday travel season, but if the weather holds out, things could go more easily. The peaks in the United States are probably going to be lower than they were over the Thanksgiving holiday because travel over Christmas and New Year’s tends to be dispersed over many days. Federal officials and airlines are encouraged by this.

However, the catastrophe that Southwest Airlines had during the Christmas season last year should prevent arrogance. Southwest will pay $140 million as part of a settlement revealed by the Transportation Department only this week for the disaster that left over 2 million passengers delayed. 1.2% of US flights have been canceled so far this year, which is almost half as many as 2.1% during the same period last year. FlightAware reports that on Thanksgiving, cancellation rates were significantly lower than 1%.

Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, said on Tuesday, “I don’t want to jinx us, but so far 2023 has seen the lowest cancellation rate in the last five years.” But winter weather “will certainly be a challenge in the next few weeks,” he continued.

The number of cancelled flights increased last year as a result of airlines’ staffing shortages as travel recovered from the pandemic earlier than anticipated. Since then, the number of cancellations has decreased and American airlines have added hundreds of pilots, flight attendants, and other employees.

According to Mike Arnot, a representative for the aviation analytics company Cirium, travel to Europe has been more seamless this year than it was last year, despite last year’s struggles with cancellations and other interruptions. More people are anticipated to fly around Christmas and New Year’s. Nevertheless, Cirium reports that as of now in December, only 3% of flights within Europe have been canceled and roughly 30% have experienced delays. According to Cirium’s projection, between December 22 and January 2, there will be 10% more seats flown within Europe than there were during the same period in 2023.

Travel in the Netherlands and the UK was predicted to be disrupted on Thursday by strong winds and rain from a storm dubbed Pia. There will be a “significant number of flights that will be delayed or canceled on Thursday,” according to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. According to FlightAware, around one-third of the planes arriving and departing from Schiphol on Wednesday had delays on Wednesday night. Only 2% of flights arriving and 1% of planes departing had to be canceled.

Pia caused some train services in Scotland to be suspended on Thursday, and slowdowns were predicted elsewhere in the United Kingdom; however, flying was not being affected by the storm as of yet. The COVID-19 pandemic has still not completely healed the world’s aviation industry. Airports Council International, a Montreal-based trade association for airports, projects that 8.6 billion people will pass through global airports in 2023. That represents around 94% of the passenger volume in 2019 prior to the pandemic.

One positive development is that, despite being close to Keflavik Airport, the major airport in the nation, flights are not being disrupted by the volcanic explosions in southwest Iceland. Experts say that the Reykjanes Peninsula eruptions differ from the 2010 eruption of a different Icelandic volcano, the Eyjafjallajokull, which spread vast clouds of ash over Europe and severely disrupted international aviation, due to their position and features.

To keep flights operating over the holidays, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it is adding more air traffic routes, particularly along the East Coast. Airlines have attributed a large portion of their delays during the previous year to a lack of FAA air traffic controllers, which causes traffic to slow down. Due to a shortage of employees, the FAA forced airlines to cut back on flights in the New York City region during summer and fall. However, the agency claims to have been hiring and currently employs 10,700 trained controllers.

New FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker stated on Tuesday, “There are different views on what the number should be, but it needs to be a lot higher.” Between Saturday and New Year’s Day, 115 million people are expected to travel 50 miles or more from their homes, according to AAA’s prediction. Even while it is less than the record established in 2019, it represents a 2% gain above the auto club’s prediction from the previous year.

When compared to previous Christmas, the majority of those individuals will save some money on gas since they will be driving. As per AAA, the national average for gasoline on Wednesday was $3.08, which is a decrease of 23 cents from one month ago and 6 cents from the same period last year. The days with the most traffic will be Saturday and Thursday of next week, December 28, according to INRIX, a source of transportation statistics.

The busiest days for aviation travel, according to the Transportation Security Administration, are anticipated to be Thursday, Friday, and New Year’s Day. Although that is still well shy of the record 2.9 million tourists that TSA scanned on the Sunday following Thanksgiving, the agency still expects to screen more than 2.5 million people each of those days. Already, flying is more than it was before the outbreak. 12.3% more travelers have been screened by the TSA than at this time last year, and 1.4% more than in 2019. December is currently 6% higher than it was a year ago.