Holiday travel back to 2019 levels at 2 million people a day

The latest numbers from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) show Thanksgiving holiday travel is almost equal to the numbers seen just before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019. TSA estimates 20 million passengers will fly between November 19 and November 28, about 2 million people every day.  

Delta Air Lines (DAL) says U.S. leisure travel has fully recovered to 2019 levels and expects to fly 5.6 million people. "The Sunday after Thanksgiving Day could be a post-downturn record-setter: 550,000 Delta customers are expected to travel that day, well over the previous single-day, post-downturn record of 516,000 set this summer," the airline stated.

United Airlines (UAL) plans to fly 4.5 million people, roughly 88% of its 2019 volume and predicts the Sunday after Thanksgiving will be its busiest day since the pandemic began.

"We’re expecting around 450,000 customers," United said.

'We're going to be reliable'

The airlines all have in-house operations which control every aspect of a carrier's daily operations and at Southwest Airlines it is called Network Operations Control or NOC.

"We operate within an operational philosophy that we're going to be safe. We're going to be low cost. We're going to be reliable, but also, mostly, hospitality. So with all four, those customers can depend on our product that we deliver," Steve West, senior director of NOC at Southwest Airlines (LUV), told Yahoo Finance Live.

The roughly 600 people who work inside the state-of-the-art, high-tech NOC control planes, manage thousands of employees, like pilots and flight attendants, and schedule all the airlines logistics on a daily basis.  

"I mean, we're talking thousands, you know? We're talking 15,000, 20,000 ground ops employees that we're having to work with. So from the operational perspective, we're probably talking about at least 30,000, 40,000 employees," he said.

NOC employees work in a computer tech center lit with soothing blue lights to help calm nerves when things like bad weather throw a wrench into the flight scheduling system. That happened in early October when bad weather forced Southwest to cancel thousands of flights.

"Yeah, that was rough," West said. "We just knew it was going to be difficult for a couple of days, and then it will smooth out, and a lot of reason for that is because of the way our network design is. It takes about three days to recover from those."

Southwest beefed up its staffing ahead of the holiday travel season and is promising to avoid widespread cancellations. But some things, like the weather, are beyond an airline's control.

"It is likely to be stormy next week, so travel plans may be disrupted as a result," warned Cowen airline analyst Helane Becker. Another potential setback may be the 40% of TSA agents who are not yet vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

"The government delayed implementation of its vaccine mandate to January 4 from December 8, which we view favorably as it shouldn't add to travel disruptions during the year-end holidays. It appears as though weather, not COVID-19 could be an issue during the holidays," Becker said in a note to her clients.

West is optimistic about the holiday travel season and the role NOC plays at Southwest. "You never want to be caught basically just taking a pause, but there are days that are very smooth and the way our network is, if it runs like designed, it runs fantastic," he said.

Adam Shapiro is co-anchor of Yahoo Finance Live. Follow him on Twitter @Ajshaps

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