Holiday air travel slowdown seen

Look for fewer seats and fewer flights, but crowded planes as a weak economy keeps passengers and airlines in check.

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By Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Fewer air travelers are expected for the upcoming holiday season compared to last year, but planes will still be crowded because the airlines are cutting back on flights, according to industry reports.

The Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, projects a 9% year-to-year decrease in passengers traveling globally on U.S. airlines during the 21-day span from Dec. 18 to Jan. 7, according to a Thursday report.

The airlines have also reduced holiday flights by 9%, said the ATA, meaning that planes will be just as crowded as last year, despite the significant decrease in travelers. The ATA projected that the busiest travel days will be on Dec. 19 and Dec. 27, with a total of two million travelers during the entire holiday season.

The ATA report said the decline "is driven by an extremely fragile economy and falling global demand for travel."

For much of 2008, airlines have been cutting back on their least fuel-efficient flights to alleviate the pressure from soaring fuel prices this summer. This provides the passenger with less flight options.

In addition, cash-strapped Americans are cutting back on luxuries, such as holiday travel, as job losses continue to mount.

Despite the decline in travelers, ATA spokesman David Castelveter said there might still be "days over the holidays when planes are 100% full and airports are jam packed" because of weather conditions.

"Weather is the real driver here," said Castelveter. "If we have good weather, we're going to have smooth operations; if you're going to have bad weather, you're going to have delays."

Nasty weather took its toll during the recent Thanksgiving travel season. On Nov. 30, the Sunday following Thanksgiving, less than half of all arrivals in the U.S. were on time, and more than a quarter of all flights experienced "excessive" delays exceeding 45 minutes, according to FlightStats, a provider of travel information.

"Travelers who waited until Sunday for their return trips experienced a truly dismal travel day as heavy rain and snow caused delays in the upper Midwest and Northeast and long delays rippled through the entire system," said FlightStats, in a written report.

The Official Airline Guide, an airline research organization, made similar findings when it examined the 17-day span from Dec. 19 to Jan. 4, focusing on travel among the busiest 100 U.S. airports.

OAG said the total number of airline seats will decline by nearly 8% during holiday season, compared to last year, and the total number of flights will decline by nearly 9%.

Meanwhile, holiday air fares are flat compared to 2007, according to Carl Schwartz, chief travel officer for Cheapflights.com, even though air travelers have been paying higher fares through most of the year.

Schwartz said that fares increased about 10% this year through September, compared to the same period last year. But the holiday fares have mellowed, as the airlines try to lure buyers during a time of slackening demand.

"There are going to be some good deals for people," said Schwartz, referring to last-minute discount flights in the last few days leading up to Hanukkah and Christmas. "The question is whether they can still afford to fly just based on what's going on with the economy."

Beyond the holiday season, the ATA expects even more flight reductions going into next year.

"All signs suggest that the schedule cuts prompted by high fuel prices in 2008 will deepen in 2009, primarily due to the rapidly deteriorating economic environment and the volatility of the industry's cost of operations," John Heimlich, chief economist for the ATA, said in a statement. To top of page

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