How Bad Will Holiday Travel Be This Year?
Tens of thousands of flights in the US were canceled around Christmas last year, including more than 15,000 flights on Southwest alone.
This year, travelers literally only want one thing, and it’s to know if we’ll see a repeat of last December’s disgusting flight cancellations.
Why flights get canceled
There are two reasons: something outside an airline’s control or something within an airline’s control.
First, outside factors. There’s going to be plenty of bad weather every year. And until we figure out how to safely land a plane in a blizzard or take off in a thunderstorm, I think disrupted travelers are understanding here.
What’s annoying and frustrating is when your trip gets upended, and it’s the airline’s fault. We saw a ton of these blue sky cancellations in 2022, and we’ve seen very few in 2023. (*crosses fingers and knocks on wood as hard as I possibly can*)
2022 vs. 2023
Last year was shambolic. Nearly 5.5% of nationwide flights in December got canceled, including multiple days around Christmas when two-thirds of Southwest flights were axed. And that was following significant disruptions in the summer when many travelers took their first trip since the pandemic began.
Comparing apples-to-apples, here’s the different January through August cancellation rates:
- 2019: 2.3%
- 2022: 3.0%
- 2023: 1.7%
I’ll be the first to call out airlines when they’re messing up. I also believe in giving credit when they do right. This year has been a big improvement—a cancellation rate around half what it was last year, and even significantly better than pre-pandemic.
Will the holidays be bad this year?
Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are two of the busiest travel times of the year, which, to all our misfortune, arrive right when the weather turns sour in much of the country. Mother Nature will cause some number of cancellations, guaranteed.
But will we see another widespread meltdown like we saw last year? I’m optimistic we won’t.
First, airlines have already done far better this year at minimizing cancellations within their control. Second, airlines have significantly more pilots, planes, and staff this year. Third, the entire industry was snakebit from last year’s debacle and has altered its operations accordingly. One reason we’ve seen fewer disruptions this year is airlines have been more cautious in their scheduling and the number of buffers they have available.
Still, past performance is no guarantee of future results. I certainly wouldn’t bet my savings on airlines avoiding widespread disruptions, especially considering meltdowns are unpredictable black swan events. But I would bet something that we won’t see disruptions anywhere near last year’s scale.
If you do get unlucky and your flight gets disrupted, here’s the scoop on your rights and what you should do.
Published November 13, 2023
Last updated December 19, 2023
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