Passengers to become drivers for Thanksgiving this year

We aren’t staying at home, but we’re definitely not flying. That’s the word out of AAA this year. Thanksgiving, always a travel-heavy holiday, will see more cars in the road than people crammed at the gate, as travelers respond to the recession and recent increases in airfares.

AAA puts the number of people driving 50 miles or more from home for Thanksgiving at 38.4 million — up 1.4 percent from last year. The number of people traveling by car (regardless of distance) is set to edge 2.1 percent higher. Meanwhile, the number of people taking to the skies is expected to drop a hefty 6.7 percent. The Air Transportation Association sees the passenger count dropping 4 percent, but that’s for the “holiday period,” which stretches from November 20 to December 1. “Economic headwinds” are the primary reason, the ATA says.

The economic situation’s role in the decision to drive versus fly isn’t limited to the change in prices. Airlines have been pushing their fares up for the past few weeks, but for consumers, the decision is based on cost relative to their willingness to spend. Rick Seaney, CEO of, tells MSNBC, “A leisure traveler might have bought a domestic ticket for $350 last year. Lately, $250 has been the breakpoint; above that, they just weren’t going to buy.”

If your flight looks crowded this year, it’s probably because there aren’t going to be as many planes in the sky. Only 679 billion domestic seat miles will be offered this year, down from last year’s 730 billion, which was already cut from the year before. From 2008 to 2009, the number of available seat miles is off 7 percent.

While the economic climate is certainly a factor, AAA sees other drivers in the trend from wings to wheels. The cut routes and flights, delays and the security gauntlet have all contributed to the decline in Thanksgiving passengers since 2000 of a profound 62 percent. If the airlines didn’t think they had competition for the Thanksgiving season rush, this is an answer that can’t be ignored.