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HomeTravelBay Area airports brace for record holiday travel a year after meltdown

Bay Area airports brace for record holiday travel a year after meltdown

Jose Herrera and Eloisa Zuniga were among millions of travelers caught up in a holiday air travel meltdown a year ago, but that wasn’t enough to intimidate them from flying to the Bay Area to spend the holidays with family in what is forecast to be a record season.
“We just traveled a few days earlier this year, to just make sure we were here,” Zuniga, 28, said Wednesday after their Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago landed at Oakland International Airport.
Across the U.S., more than 115.2 million people are expected to travel by air, road, rail or ship for the December holiday season between Dec. 23 and Jan. 1, a figure that’s 2.2% higher than last year and marks the second-highest number since 2000, AAA reported. That includes more than 15.4 million traveling Californians, 2.6% more than the previous record in 2019, before COVID-19 crushed holiday travel in 2020.
“Leisure travel is a priority for Americans, and you could argue even more so now, post-pandemic,” said AAA spokeswoman Aixa Diaz.
A record 7.51 million people are expected to fly for the December holidays, topping the 7.33 million in pre-COVID 2019.
“This is the highest ever for air travel for the year-end holiday period” which includes Christmas and New Year’s Day, Diaz said.
The Federal Aviation Administration expects the busiest day for flights will be Thursday, with 48,959 forecast.
San Francisco International Airport expects 2.25 million travelers from Dec. 15-31, about 87% of the number of travelers during the same period in 2019, and the busiest day will likely be Friday with about 152,000 passengers, spokesman Doug Yakel said.
Oakland International Airport expects 500,000 travelers from Dec. 15-Jan. 1 and also expects its busiest day will be Friday, with about 35,000 travelers, said spokeswoman Kaley Skantz.
San Jose International Airport spokesman Scott Wintner said the airport doesn’t have a projected number of travelers or busiest days.
“Those are always best guesses anyway — and the reality is that even if one day is marginally busier than another, it will be busy at airports generally over much of the next two weeks,” Wintner said. “But, so far, we haven’t had any major delays, and no concerns regarding impact of weather to our local operations at SJC.”
Forecasts call for mild weather along the East Coast through Christmas, with the main weather affecting travel coming from the rainstorms moving through California and the southwest and another coming through the northwest. But even international events like Iceland’s erupting volcano can disrupt airlines’ scheduling.
Ken Dockins, 80, who flew Wednesday into San Jose from Baltimore with his wife, Simy Buckwold, said they booked flights “a long time in advance” to visit her sister, and when they heard to expect a record number of flyers, it “kind of shook us up.”
“But we’re here,” he said. “The flights were good.”
Last year’s holiday season was marred by a wave of flight cancellations due to severe weather as the West Coast was soaked by a series of rainy atmospheric river storms while Winter Storm Elliott blasted much of the rest of the country with snow, ice, high winds and cold temperatures.
Airlines cancelled more than 30,000 flights and delayed another 142,000 flights due to what Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey called insufficient extreme weather preparedness. But it was even worse for Southwest Airlines, where it triggered a 10-day scheduling meltdown that cancelled nearly 17,000 flights and stranded 2 million travelers, which company labor unions blamed on antiquated scheduling technology.
That led the Department of Transportation this week to announce a record $140 million fine against Southwest, which Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Tuesday was “by far the largest that this department has ever ordered.”
Herrera and Zuniga said they were held up for hours with delays on their Southwest flight home for the holidays last year but had no issues with their flights this year.
Neither did Connie Hedges, 67, a retired prison chaplain from New Orleans. She usually comes to California to visit her daughter Summer String and 8-year-old granddaughter Arya of Boulder Creek but wasn’t able to make the trip last year due to a surgery and avoided all the chaos at the airport.
“I always travel Southwest because it’s always the best experience,” Hedges said after landing Wednesday in San Jose, where she wore festive Christmas lights so they could easily find her. “It was a very pleasant flight.”
Last year’s disruptions came as a surprise, Buttigieg recalled, as transportation officials had not anticipated the airline industry would recover so quickly from the dive in air travel during the pandemic.
“We were thinking about how many years or decades it would take for the U.S. aviation sector to recover,” Buttigieg recalled Tuesday at a news conference in Washington. Instead, he said, demand came back “faster than most forecasters had thought possible, which led to the opposite problem — airlines struggling to keep up with demand leading to a number of disruptions in 2022.”
Buttigieg said inclement weather is the biggest cause of delays and cancellations, followed by airline scheduling issues, and about 10% is due to air traffic control staffing shortages. The Department of Transportation is in a recruitment process to alleviate staffing shortages.
But Buttigieg said Southwest’s scheduling disruptions a year ago were “controllable” and stood out from the weather-related disruptions at other airlines. The record fine, he said, was “to hold them accountable for those failures and send a signal to the rest of the airline industry.”
“We are seeing more people flying in than ever in U.S. history, with fewer cancellations than we have seen in years,” Buttigieg said. “We’re investing to keep it that way.”

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