Flying this Thanksgiving? Prepare for packed flights, busy airports

Transportation Security Administration says it's prepared to handle the increase in travelers this Thanksgiving

If your Thanksgiving holiday plans include catching a flight this year, you’re going to want to prepare for busier airports, packed flights and possible delays and cancelations.

AAA estimates 4.2 million people will board a plane this Thanksgiving. That’s up from 2.3 million during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and just below the 2019 number of 4.6 million.

"Travel volume this year is expected to be notably higher than what we have seen in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving,’ Transportation Security Administration spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said.

And airports across the country seem to be reciting the same message to passengers – plan ahead.


In fact, Philadelphia International Airport estimates about 400,000 outbound travelers between Nov. 19-30, which would be the busiest the airport has been since the start of the pandemic. Passengers there are being advised to arrive at the airport at least three hours before a scheduled departure time to allow for more time to check in and get through security.

"We’ve always seen a busy travel season during the holidays, but this is going to be just one of the factors with travel coming back online in general," said Melanie Lieberman, senior travel editor for "Of course with the (U.S.) opening to international travelers, we’re going to see an increase in that. And we’re also going to have that compound with staffing shortages, high demand while there’s still reduced supply."

In addition to the full flights and increased traffic inside airports, passengers are also reminded that some circumstances could lead to some flight delays and cancelations.

"Weather is everything when it comes to airline operations," meteorologist and aviation expert JP Dice said.

Many airports are still in a post-COVID situation with air carriers still trying to get back to normal. Weather and staffing issues just add to the problem.

In early October, Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights and delayed hundreds more. Initially, those issues were blamed on severe weather in the Tampa area, but because flights were unable to take off or land, staffing became an issue when crews couldn’t get to other airports.


"That is a major sector across the Southeast," Dice said. "That’s limiting travel that’s going to places like Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa. And to get those airplanes from Point A to Point B, it’s kind of like a trickle-down effect."

Just a few weeks later, American Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights just before Halloween that stranded passengers across the country. Severe weather in Texas forced the airline to delay or cancel the flights, and then staffing was an issue when crews at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport couldn’t move on to their other destinations.

It took days for the airline to catch up, leaving long lines and angry passengers in many airports.

It’s also important to note that delays and cancelations don’t have to be weather-related. There’s been staffing issues at airports across the country that has led to long lines at check-in and while trying to get through security checkpoints.

But, a spokesperson with the Transportation Security Administration said it was prepared to handle the increase in travelers.

Spokesman Daniel Velez said the TSA allocates resources and staff in an effort to ensure that all available airport checkpoint lanes are open, staffed and operational. But, he said, there are some local circumstances that may cause long lines, and the TSA would work diligently to minimize those delays.

TSA officers screen anywhere between 1.9 and 2.2 million passengers every day, so get to the airport early in case of any long lines when you arrive, Velez said.

The bottom line – plan ahead. Allow for plenty of time to get to the airport, park (if you’re driving), check-in, drop your bags, get through security and make your way to the gate. And as always, check with your airline for your flight’s status before heading to the airport.