A projected 38 million passengers will fly on U.S. carriers during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, a 3% increase over last year, according to an airline trade group that attributes the rise to lower airfares and an improved economy.
The increase should result in about 73,000 more travelers a day from Dec. 18 to Jan. 3 over the same period last year, according to Airlines for America, a Washington-based trade group.
Airfares have fallen 4.3% for the first nine months of the year, the group said. That drop is mostly attributed to a steep decline in the price of fuel, the largest expense for most airlines. Jet fuel prices have dropped 33% over the past year to about $1.40 a gallon in North America.
With domestic flights increasingly crowded as demand for air travel has grown, the trade group said airlines will deploy larger planes to carry the surge in holiday travelers.
"U.S. airlines are well positioned to serve the higher demand by adding flights and seats, deploying new and larger aircraft and boosting staffing," said John Heimlich, chief economist for the group.
A report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Transportation said that the rate of filled seats on domestic and international flights -- known as the load factor -- rose to 83% in September, the highest rate for any September on record.
For the first nine months of the year, the load factor on domestic and international flights was 83.9%, equaling the all-time high set in the same period last year, according to the federal agency.
Airlines for American projects that the busiest travel days will be, in order: Jan. 3 (a Sunday), Dec. 18 (Friday) and Dec. 27 (Sunday). The lightest travel days should be Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
The number of passengers flying on U.S. carriers for the 17-day period is expected to range from 1.9 million to 2.4 million a day, the trade group said.