Winter Holiday Travel Trends

In the United States, the winter holidays (the time period between December 15 and January 4) include some of the most heavily traveled days of the year.  Which means, as temperatures drop and ticket prices rise, nearly everyone reading this blog is bracing for the winter holiday travel crush.  So, you may be wondering: how much does travel actually increase over the winter holiday?  And how widespread is the uptick?  The short answers are: a lot and global.  But, let’s grab some eggnog and dumplings and take a closer look at winter holiday travel trends.

In the United States, according to the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) AAA 2017 Year-End Holiday Forecast, winter holiday travel has increased every year since 2008, putting 2018 on track for the 10th consecutive increase in winter holiday traffic.  The AAA Forecast noted that travel was expected to increase across the board in the United States, with air travel realizing the largest growth at 4.1 percent (250,000 additional travelers), followed by automobile travel at 3 percent, and finally train, bus and cruise ship travel with a 2.2 percent swell. 

While AAA provides a snapshot of winter holiday trends and projections within the U.S., Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade organization for U.S. airlines, produced a report tracking winter holiday travel globally.  The 2017 A4A Forecast projected, “51 million passengers are expected to fly globally on U.S. airlines over the 21-day winter holiday travel period from Friday, Dec. 15 through Thursday, Jan. 4, approximately a 3.5 percent increase over the 49.3 million estimated to have flown last year.”  

These numbers are significant, and show no sign of recession, which begs the question: how do airlines accommodate such a tremendous but short-term passenger escalation?  According to A4A, “Airlines will offer 91,000 additional seats per day across their networks to accommodate the 80,000 additional daily passengers expected to travel over the holidays. By adding flights and utilizing larger planes, U.S. airlines have boosted staffing levels for 47 consecutive months and are expected to do so throughout the holiday period to accommodate the millions of holiday travelers.”

While it’s clear that winter holiday travel trends are progressing upwards for U.S. airlines both domestically and globally, what impact do the holidays have on Chinese airlines?  For China, the winter holiday encapsulates the Chinese Lunar New Year, a seven to ten-day time-frame that fluctuates between January and February and calls people home to celebrate with family.  According to CAPA – Center for Aviation, travel on Chinese airlines during this stretch has steadily increased since 2010.  Keep in mind that China is experiencing remarkable increases in air travel overall (the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that China will surpass the United States as the world’s largest aviation market by 2022), but the winter holiday escalates the already expanded traveler volume for Chinese airlines.  In fact, according to a CAPA analysis of Chinese travel data, New Year traffic is growing faster than the annual average.  “China Southern flew over a quarter of a million passengers on a single day, and Guangzhou airport broke traffic records two days in a row.”  They further reported that “China Eastern expects to carry 4.4 million passengers over 14 hours. For comparison, during 2016’s Lunar New Year, China Eastern carried 3.2 million passengers, or 4% of its annual total.  China Eastern will carry 14% more passengers during the New Year than in 2016, but in 2016 there was only 6.8% growth and 2017 should track similarly. China Southern expects to carry 12% more passengers during the 2017 New Year, but its 2016 growth (and guideline for 2017) was 4.3%.”

This steady and widespread seasonal rise demonstrates that, regardless of the mode of transportation (ARJ21, B747, Greyhound Bus or reindeer-powered sleigh), people are heading out for the winter holiday.  So as you wrap your gifts, stuff your carry-on luggage to max capacity and search for healthy food options in your local airport (I will NOT overindulge this holiday), remember that you are anything but alone.  Happy holidays and safe travels!