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Airline flight bookings for the Thanksgiving holiday are up significantly this year

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right, Thanksgiving last year was different, right? If you gathered with anyone outside your immediate household, it was probably just a few people. Maybe you had turkey and pumpkin pie al fresco on the deck. This year, vaccinations mean more people feel comfortable flying, and they want to go see friends and family who live far away. So get ready. The airports are going to be crazy. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The early pandemic days of half-empty flights are long gone.

VIVEK PANDYA: We're seeing a lot of people very much, you know, looking to travel and fly for Thanksgiving this year and make up for maybe staying at home last year.

SCHAPER: Vivek Pandya is a lead analyst for Adobe Digital Insights. He tracks airline booking data and says bookings for Thanksgiving are up 78% over last year and are even slightly higher than at this time in 2019.

PANDYA: There's excitement around potentially, you know, being with family and friends for Thanksgiving again. So that's, you know, pushing up bookings, you know, pretty sizably there.

SCHAPER: But Pandya says as bookings rise, so do prices, with airfares up significantly from last year's pandemic bargains. In recent months, some airlines have had trouble handling the rapid recovery in air travel demand. Southwest, Spirit and American have all had operational meltdowns because they had too few pilots and flight attendants available to recover from bad weather, and each ended up canceling thousands of flights.

Kathleen Bangs is a former commercial airline pilot who is now with the flight-tracking firm FlightAware. And she notes that with winter weather coming, airlines need to have plenty of extra pilots and flight attendants on standby.

KATHLEEN BANGS: Because it's one thing to have a meltdown at the end of October, but it's another thing completely if you ruin somebody's Thanksgiving or Christmas or make them miss it altogether. That is on a whole nother level.

SCHAPER: American Airlines, which had the most recent meltdown, has now brought back all of its flight attendants who took leaves of absence during the pandemic and will have 600 new hires on board December 1. In addition, flight attendant union spokesman Paul Hartshorn Jr. says American will pay flight attendants 150% their normal rate for working key holiday trips.

PAUL HARTSHORN JR: And if you didn't call in sick for a certain period of time throughout the whole holiday season, they will, in turn, pay you up to triple pay, 300%, for those trips.

SCHAPER: But Hartshorn adds that flight attendants continue to face a high number of incidents of verbal and physical abuse on flights.

HARTSHORN: We've had flight attendants shoved, punched, pushed to the floor and hit their head on the armrest on the way down - really, really serious injuries that we're dealing with here.

SCHAPER: On one recent flight, he says a flight attendant was punched repeatedly, breaking bones in her face. That passenger was arrested and charged by federal authorities, as the FAA is now increasingly referring these cases to the FBI and Department of Justice for prosecution. The FAA has now received more than 5,000 reports of unruly passenger incidents since January and about three-fourths of them involving passengers refusing to wear masks.

Another potential holiday travel problem is long lines at airport security checkpoints. TSA spokeswoman Jessica Mayle says the agency is ready.

JESSICA MAYLE: They definitely know the times of day, the flight patterns, the passenger patterns that they see, and they keep their staffing appropriate so that you don't see wait lines beyond what we can expect.

SCHAPER: But TSA employees must be fully vaccinated by November 22, the Monday before Thanksgiving. And as of last month, about 40% of them had not reported their status. TSA officials insist there won't be staffing shortfalls though. They expect the actual number of unvaccinated officers to be small. And officers who do not comply will still be allowed to work while going through a period of education and counseling.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF E.T.A.'S "I CAN TAKE ANYTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.