Not dead yet

EXCLUSIVE: Thanksgiving air travel is down from 2019 — but it could be a lot worse

Airlines are a bellwether for the travel industry. But during the pandemic, they've become more than that: They're a bellwether for everything

As airlines cut flights and go begging for a bailout, we hold our breath. As they add flights, we breathe a sigh of relief.

So during one of the busiest weeks for air travel, it's worth taking a closer look at the airline industry. 

How's it doing? Not that bad, actually. 

Domestic capacity is down by about a third for Thanksgiving week, compared to the same period in 2019, according to exclusive analysis from the Official Airline Guide (OAG). 

"Every airline has been badly damaged," John Grant, OAG's senior analyst told me. "But it’s clear that those airlines with a historically greater reliance on the domestic market have been less impacted by COVID-19." 

By the way, my advice for the next few weeks is still the same: Stay home if you can.

How airlines are faring this Thanksgiving

Here's a look at domestic airline capacity for Thanksgiving week, according to OAG.

That’s interesting. Two of the "ultra" low-cost carriers — Allegiant and Spirit — are faring much better (down 13.5 percent and 16.2 percent, respectively). The hardest-hit, Hawaiian, was affected by the state's months-long quarantine. It's at about half the normal capacity. Two of the legacy airlines — American and United — are in a bad place, with their capacity down nearly 50 percent.

"What is surprising is that Delta Air Lines appears to have a more positive perspective on the Thanksgiving week than their two largest competitors, with a 24 percent drop in capacity compared to last year," Grant told me. "Meanwhile, American and United Airlines are both operating just over half of last year’s Thanksgiving capacity.”

What's behind that? It could be Delta's middle-seat blocking policy, which it recently extended through March. That might also explain Southwest Airlines' higher numbers. (Southwest doesn't block middle seats since it has an open-seating policy, but it has restricted capacity to facilitate social distancing.)

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What’s up at airports?

If you're flying somewhere, you might be wondering how airports are doing. Glad you asked. Here are the busiest airports:

Chicago and Los Angeles are way down from last Thanksgiving.  But Denver is close to normal, compared to the last holiday season, according to OAG.

And a poll by Mentimeter, which develops presentations software, suggests only 22 percent of Thanksgiving gatherings have been canceled this year because of the pandemic. 

And look at hotels:

These are hotel searches, according to the travel marketing technology company Koddi. There's been a more pronounced increase in demand closer to Thanksgiving this year compared to what they have seen historically — a gradual rise week before the holiday. 

The takeaway seems clear for travelers, and maybe for everyone else. A recovery is not far off. I called the bottom of this crisis in October, predicting that a rebound was already underway. While fares are still down an average of 20 percent, many parts of the airline industry are in much better shape than I assumed.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends

COVID isn't the planet-ending event some people feared it would be. Parts of the travel industry have turned a corner. Better days are ahead. And that’s something for which everyone should be thankful.

What's your outlook for the rest of 2020 and beyond? I'd love to include your thoughts. The comments are open.

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P.S.: Apologies to anyone who read Sunday’s headline literally. I was being ironic. I don’t think anyone should disregard the CDC advice. Also, today’s headline was an homage to Monty Python. Seemed fitting, since we’re talking about the plague.