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This year's holiday travel season is going to be as chaotic as pre-pandemic levels

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right. So hopefully, you got to your Thanksgiving destination safely and without too many hassles because the number of people traveling this week appears to be close to pre-pandemic levels. And that means long lines at airports and train stations, jampacked planes and gridlocked roads and highways.

NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper is watching the roads and the skies to give us some perspective on Thanksgiving travel. David, I've been on quite a few planes the last couple of weeks. There has never been an empty seat anywhere on that plane. So are travelers and this travel season becoming more like pre-pandemic levels?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, when it comes to flying in particular, travelers are definitely back. I mean, one airline industry official says this is the first normal holiday season in three years. The number of people flying between now and the start of the new year is expected to get very close to pre-pandemic levels, if not surpass pre-pandemic levels. Nick Calio, the head of the industry group Airlines for America, puts it this way.

NICK CALIO: It's going to be very busy. We're going to be flying over 2 million people a day. And it's been a rough go. It's been two years or three years since we've had a normal Thanksgiving.

SCHAPER: What's interesting about this, A, is that airlines are actually flying fewer flights over the holidays this year than last year. It's 4% fewer flights and 13% fewer flights than in 2019, according to the air travel data firm Cirium. But at the same time, they're actually offering more seats.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Fewer flights, more seats - how does that work, and how is it affecting airfares?

SCHAPER: Well, the airlines are just flying bigger planes while parking some of their smaller regional jets. It's just more efficient and economical to fly more passengers on fewer planes with fewer pilots. So this means there will be more seats available on routes between big cities, but it's going to be a lot more difficult to find flights to Grand Junction, Colo., or Duluth, Minn., or other smaller markets.

And across the board, capacity is very tight and the airlines' costs are up. So airfares are up substantially - 43% over last year and 15% above 2019 levels.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, it used to be that yesterday, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the Sunday after were the busiest days for the airlines all year. Is that still true?

SCHAPER: Yeah. I mean, those are still the two busiest travel days of the Thanksgiving period, but they're not as busy as they used to be. You know, like everything else post-pandemic, people are changing the way they travel.

Mike Arnot of the airline data firm Cirium says especially those who can work remotely, they seem to be spreading out their travel over the entire Thanksgiving week and beyond.

MIKE ARNOT: Instead of trying to get back to the office on the Monday after Thanksgiving, maybe you can use that flexible work schedule that you have to pick the cheaper travel day, which will be, you know, the Tuesday or the Wednesday right after Thanksgiving.

SCHAPER: You know, this is a pattern we're seeing in other parts of the year, too, even with hybrid work-cation trips, where a business trip to one city on a Wednesday or Thursday might include a long weekend stay there, too.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, over the summer, I remember several airlines had meltdowns, operational meltdowns that caused a large number of flight delays and cancellations. Are the airlines now maybe better prepared for the holiday travel surge?

SCHAPER: The airlines say they're better prepared. They've been on a hiring spree. And as of August, actually, they now have more employees than they did before the pandemic, including 10% more pilots at the seven biggest airlines. They've significantly trimmed their schedules to match them more realistically to their staffing levels, so they say. Whether or not they have enough wiggle room for when bad weather inevitably hits or some other problems arise, that remains to be seen.

MARTÍNEZ: David, what about the people that don't want to fly and want to drive? What do the roads look like?

SCHAPER: Well, they're very busy. AAA estimates nearly 49 million people are driving for Thanksgiving, most of them leaving home yesterday, which gave us some of the worst traffic jams of the entire weekend. The mobility data analytics firm INRIX projects where the worst congestion will be and finds that there will likely be some pretty bad traffic jams on Sunday when many of us return home. And they're even predicting some heavy traffic on Saturday in a lot of cities, as well.

Now, meanwhile, the National Safety Council is urging drivers to be cautious, especially if, like me, you're in a part of the country that's likely getting snow. They estimate more than 500 people will die in preventable crashes on the nation's roadways through Sunday, and many of them due to intoxicated drivers.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR transportation correspondent David Schaper. David, thanks.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.