Crowds, delays await Thanksgiving travelers

Airlines have been cutting capacity to save money, meaning crowded planes for holiday travelers, even though many are staying home this year.

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Despite higher air fares and an economic crisis that is forcing many Americans to stay home for the holidays, air travel is expected to be more crowded and hectic than usual this Thanksgiving, experts say.

The industry launched a capacity reduction initiative this year, cutting their least fuel-efficient flights in response to fuel prices that hit record highs this summer. This means there are less flights to choose from, and less of a buffer for unfortunate travelers who miss their flights.

"People need to be prepared to be stranded," said Brent Bowen, professor of aviation science at the Parks College of St. Louis University, noting that this applies to airplanes as well as airports. "Don't board that flight unless you're prepared to sit on that tarmac for a few hours."

The Official Airline Guide, a source for flight schedules and a guide for business travelers, expects industry-wide capacity cuts of 9% for domestic flights in the fourth quarter, with steeper cuts from some individual airlines.

UAL Corp.'s (UAUA, Fortune 500) United Airlines is cutting domestic capacity by up to 15.5% for the fourth quarter, while Continental Airlines (CAL, Fortune 500) is cutting domestic capacity by 9% for the quarter. AMR Corp.'s American Airlines plans to decrease domestic capacity by 12.5% in the fourth quarter. Delta Air Lines (DAL, Fortune 500) is decreasing domestic capacity by 16% for the Thanksgiving travel period.

This results in more crowded flights. The industry group Air Transport Authority projects that planes will be nearly 90% full, on average, on the three busiest days of the 12-day Thanksgiving travel season: Nov. 26, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. The ATA said that on most days in the season, the planes will run slightly more than 80% full, which was the holiday average last year. This is in spite of a 10% decrease, year-to-year, in the number of passengers.

"Despite the expected decline in passengers this Thanksgiving holiday travel season - the first such decline in seven years - Thanksgiving remains the busiest travel time of the year for airlines," said ATA president James May, in a prepared statement. "And make no mistake - the airports will be busy and many flights will be 100% full."

Bowen of St. Louis University said this could result in lengthy delays because there are fewer available seats for those who miss their connections, which could create a "ripple effect" that strands travelers in airports.

"[The airlines] are cutting back on flights to save money and they're cutting back on seats," said Bowen. "If the consumer gets stuck somewhere, either at their destination or at another location ... there's going to be less opportunity to move them through. That's what the consumer needs to be worried about."

Bowen said this will have more of an impact on travelers with connecting flights, rather than those who fly direct.

Higher fares, fewer flights

Customers also needs to be worried about paying higher fares, said Kellie Pelletier, spokeswoman for the travel search engine Kayak.com. She said that fares are up 15% to 20% for Thanksgiving and Christmas related travel, compared with last year.

"There are fewer seats available and the remaining seats have become more expensive," said Pelletier.

This has caused many cash-strapped travelers to change their plans, she noted. A Kayak survey of 1,400 respondents found that 27% canceled their holiday plans because of economic hardship. When the survey was completed on Oct. 30, nearly two-thirds of the participants said they hadn't even bought their plane tickets yet, because they were still looking for travel deals, according to Kayak.

Other travelers are cutting peripheral costs, like staying with their family instead of in hotels, Kayak said. The survey found that 23% accepted multiple layovers, or longer layovers, to reduce costs, putting them at increased risk of getting stranded. Another 20% said they would cut their trips short to save money.

Pelletier said the "silver lining" for budget conscious travelers is the plethora of hotel discounts now being offered, as the hotel industry struggles to fill rooms.

Rick Seaney, chief executive for Farecompare.com, an air fare search engine and information site, said there are still last-minute holiday deals for those who think they can't afford to fly.

"They need to go back and check [the fares], because they may be in range," said Seaney. "Procrastinators are going to be rewarded this year." To top of page

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