Thanksgiving flights likely to be full

Airplane stock photo

(CNN) — Expect your Thanksgiving flight to be packed.

Nearly 24 million passengers are expected to fly this Thanksgiving travel season, an increase of about 150,000 passengers over last year, industry trade group Airlines for America predicted.

With fewer planes flying, airplanes could be close to 90 percent full on the busiest travel days between Friday, November 16, and Tuesday, November 27, the trade group predicted. The busiest days are likely to be Wednesday, November 21 (2.3 million travelers), Sunday, November 25 (2.4 million travelers) and Monday, November 26 (2.3 million travelers).

Despite reports that planes are going to be nearly full during the Thanksgiving holiday, some 78% of travelers have not booked their airline, hotel or car rentals yet, according to a Hotwire survey released Wednesday.

Don’t wait to book your flights

“Thanksgiving airfare and hotel prices are up compared to last year, and they’re likely to increase even more as we get closer to the holiday,” Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group, said in a statement.

Book now, advises Hotwire, because fares are only likely to increase.

Travelers who haven’t yet bought their plane tickets might consider flying on Thanksgiving Day, November 22, when only 1.3 million people are expected to fly, and returning home on Friday, November 23, with only 1.6 million other passengers, according to Airlines for America estimates.

Also consider booking at alternate airports that may offer lower fares.

While travelers continue to complain about airlines charging for everything from more leg room to window seats to snacks, airlines would have lost money this year without those fees, according to Airlines for America vice president and chief economist John Heimlich.

Jet fuel prices continue to rise

Although airlines have seen a 5.6% increase in revenues in the third quarter of 2012 compared with the same time last year, Heimlich said that the 10 largest Unites States airlines have also faced costs that are 6.2% higher, reducing profits to a margin of 0.2% — or about 50 cents per passenger.

Without passengers paying an average of $8 each in ancillary fees on domestic, round-trip tickets, airlines would have been losing money, Heimlich said in a morning conference call.

The price of jet fuel is a key factor in higher costs, he said. It has averaged $3.08 per gallon, more than last year’s record high of $3 per gallon.

Airlines have cut the number of flights and grounded some aircraft to reduce expenses. Those cuts in domestic service are likely to continue into the new year, with Airlines for America predicting a 2.4% cut in the number of domestic airline flights and a 1.3% cut in the number of domestic airline seats for the first quarter of 2013, compared with the first quarter of 2012.

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