This Thanksgiving is shaping up to be an important indicator of where the travel industry is headed, and, in particular, how much it will cost to fly in the coming months.
In the run-up to the busiest travel days of the year, most airlines have made significant cutbacks to their flights in an attempt to regain profitability by flying fewer passengers and charging higher average fares. But no one factored a global economic meltdown into those operating plans. The falloff in demand for travel threatens to undermine the very pricing power these cuts were designed to provide, and could force the airlines back into discounting and precipitate another wave of bankruptcies and mergers.
It's too soon to tell how the airlines will respond to the latest financial downturn. But there's a relatively straightforward way to determine consumers' travel plans over the all-important Thanksgiving travel period: Ask them.
Just over a month ago, we did just that, asking our readers what their travel plans are for this Thanksgiving, and how those plans differ from previous years.
Here's what they told us:
Question: Compared to my Thanksgiving travel plans last year, this year, I am a) more likely to fly, b) less likely to fly, or c) about equally likely to fly.
A clear plurality, 43 percent, indicated they were less likely to fly this Thanksgiving than they were last year. Thirty-four percent were as likely to fly this year. And only 23 percent were more likely to fly.
Question: This year, my Thanksgiving travel plans are to a) take an airline flight, b) travel by car, or c) stay home.
Still, 48 percent still planned to fly, with 29 percent opting to stay home, and 23 percent traveling by car.
Question: If you plan to fly less or not at all, the primary reason is a) high airline ticket prices, b) the high price of other non-airline travel expenses, or c) other (please specify).
Of those responding, 64 percent cited the high cost of airline tickets as the major disincentive to flying this year. Ten percent cited "other travel-related costs."
Chief among the reasons cited by the 27 percent who checked the "Other" box were concerns about the discomfort and anxiety of traveling. A sampling:
- Busiest time of the travel year
- Too busy on the roads and airports to go away
- Wasting too much time in airport waiting
- Fees everywhere and real bad airline service
- Avoid the hassles of the crowds
- Overall hassle of flying over the holidays
Question: If you're not traveling for Thanksgiving, what are your plans?
One hundred and fourteen readers took the time to share their plans. Among the responses:
- "Rather than flying we will be driving from Kansas City to San Antonio as it is too expensive to fly the four of us down there."
- "Stay home and eat myself into a coma."
- "To go to Grandmother's house about 350 miles SE of us ... by car. Telephone calls to the young adults on the East Coast."
- "Stay at home and have a family dinner."
- "I will probably travel someplace close to my town or stay home."
- "Air Jamaica's nonstop flight from LAX to Montego Bay; staying 6 nights at Sandals Negril. It will be nice to get away from the depressing news of the U.S. economy and travel to one of those foreign places where the U.S. dollar is actually worth something!"
- "Stay home and save CASH!"
The most popular response? "Dinner at home with family," and other sentiments to that effect.
The Outlook: Clouds with a Silver Lining
With a significant proportion of SmarterTravel.com readers indicating a lower likelihood of flying, and more than half planning to either stay home or drive instead of fly, this Thanksgiving could be a dismal one for the travel industry.
If our readers are representative of travelers overall, and if they act on their plans, the airlines will have to discount aggressively, and perhaps offer generous frequent flyer mile bonuses, just to maintain their slices of a shrinking pie.
That's good news for consumers who have put their Thanksgiving travel plans on hold—there may still be some last-minute airfare bargains out there. Flying will still be a hassle, but at least it will be affordable.