November 14, 2013

Thanksgiving travelers should expect a busy Wichita airport

An estimated 25 million passengers will fly during a 12-day Thanksgiving holiday period this year, up about 1.5 percent from last year, according to Airlines for America.

An estimated 25 million passengers will fly during a 12-day Thanksgiving holiday period this year, up about 1.5 percent from last year, according to Airlines for America.

It’s too soon to speculate on whether traffic in Wichita will follow the national trend and be up over the holidays, said Valerie Wise, Wichita Mid-Continent Airport air service and business development manager. But “September traffic was up (3.22 percent over a year ago), which is a good sign,” Wise said.

Airlines are adding flights to meet growing demand. Nationally, carriers are increasing the number of available seats for Thanksgiving travel by about 2 percent, the trade group said.

Planes are expected to be more than 85 percent full during the highest volume days of the travel season, which runs Wednesday, Nov. 27, through Monday, Dec. 2.

Thanksgiving is Nov. 28.

Airlines for America, travel organization AAA and the Wichita Airport Authority have not yet released projections for holiday travel in December.

Wise said passengers should expect a busy airport. Construction on a new terminal and parking garage is complicating matters, with fewer short- and long-term spaces available near the terminal.

To help with the added holiday parking traffic, the airport is adding a third shuttle from its Park and Ride lot during peak times of the holiday travel period.

The third shuttle will likely occur only for early morning flights before Thanksgiving and on the late day flights after the holiday, Wise said. The airport now operates two shuttles from the lot.

“I imagine we’ll have full flights for this holiday season,” Wise said. “I would encourage passengers if they haven’t booked yet, they book as soon as possible. I’m sure there are seats available, but they’re getting full.”

Phone still ringing for booking flights

At Sunflower Travel, the number of people booking flights for Thanksgiving and Christmas is up overall this year, said Devin Hansen, the agency’s president.

“This year, we saw people booking a couple of months in advance,” Hansen said. And the phone is still ringing.

“There’s not a lot of space out there,” he said. “If you have not made your travel plans, you’re definitely going to be paying through the nose.”

Some travelers are booking trips to warm destinations over the Christmas holiday, such as Florida, Hawaii and Mexico.

For November, the biggest travel days are the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, with a predicted 2.42 million passengers, and the Sunday after with 2.56 million fliers, according to Airlines for America.

With flights full, a disruption in the system could mean that passengers who get bumped may end up spending an extra day where they are, he said.

“It’s always best to try to book flights first thing in the morning, just in case,” Hansen said. But some travelers go for price and book whatever flight costs less.

More flights available out of Wichita

Wichita passengers have more flights to choose from this season.

Last December, airlines offered 33 daily flights out of Wichita. That’s risen to 38 daily flights.

The increase is mostly because of the entrance of Southwest Airlines, which began operations in Wichita in June, Wise said.

Wise said she expects load factors in Wichita – how full the flights are – to average roughly 80 percent during holiday travel.

Passengers should benefit from a decrease in the average price of an airline ticket.

Airfares in the second quarter in Wichita averaged $396.30, a decline of 3.6 percent from the same time a year ago. In the U.S., average airfares also declined 3.6 percent in the second quarter to $378.

In the second quarter, Wichita’s average fares were less than Oklahoma City’s at $407.60 and Tulsa’s at $437.34 but higher than Kansas City’s at $365.09.

“This is great news for travelers,” Wise said.

It proves that in many cases, Wichita’s fares are competitive with other regional airports and aren’t worth the drive to a larger airport, she said.

Industry groups point out that the average fare prices don’t include the increasing number of fees being charged by airlines, for everything from luggage to an aisle seat.

Airlines feel good about profits

Travel planning is tricky, said Dean Headley, Wichita State University associate professor of marketing and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating report.

High passenger volumes and the possibility of bad weather are always part of holiday travel, Headley said.

Over the past several years, the holiday travel period has continued to be stressful for travelers.

In December, the airlines typically turn in their worst industry performance scores of any month. That was the case in 2012, Headley said.

The best bet for travelers is to travel as early before the actual holiday as possible or as late as possible afterward. And always leave room for schedule changes, he said.

Airfares are low, but revenue is up for the airlines.

“They keep the airfares low, but yet they nickel and dime everything else,” Headley said of fees and other costs, such as charging for food and drinks.

The fees for choosing seats, for example, mean that family members or friends may find it impossible to sit together without paying for preferential seating.

The fees are lucrative, with checked bag fees alone adding $3.5 billion to the bottom line for U.S. airlines last year.

“Airlines are profitable and feeling good about what they’re doing,” Headley said.

Southwest is the last U.S. carrier that allows passengers to check bags for free, although it does offer up-sales to customers for some things, such as preference when boarding.

For the first nine months of 2013, the nation’s 10 largest carriers reported net earnings of $4.5 billion, resulting in a net profit margin of 4 percent. That’s up from $312 million, or 0.3 percent, in 2012, according to Airlines for America.

They’ve also more than doubled their capital expenditures from $430 million per month in 2010 to $965 million per month in 2013, it said.

They’ve added new planes, lie-flat seats, WiFi, improved websites and mobile applications with better booking software.

“When airlines are profitable, customers, employees and the economy win because airlines are better able to invest in the business and improve the product and travel experience,” Airlines for America vice president and chief economist John Heimlich said in a statement.

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