by Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
Airlines expect 42 million passengers to fly during the 21-day Christmas holiday period, which is about the same as last year, although the planes are expected to be fuller.
The number of passengers expected from Dec. 17 through Jan. 6 would be down about 300,000, or 1% from last year, according to the industry group Airlines for America.
"It's essentially a flat forecast," says John Heimlich, the group's chief economist. "We still have a relatively tepid, albeit growing, economy with high unemployment, and carriers have adjusted seats downward."
The figures represent the number of passengers on each leg of a flight, so because of connections, about 15 million people will be taking round trips during the 21-day holiday period.
Planes are expected to average 86% full during the holiday period, which is about 1% more than last year, as airlines have reduced the number of planes to better match their customers, Heimlich says. The busiest days could average planes 90% full, he says.
The busiest days will be Dec. 21, 22 and 23 during the weekend before Christmas, Jan. 26 the day after the holiday and Jan. 2, the day after New Year's day.
About 2.3 million passengers are expected to fly on the busiest days, which is about the same as around Thanksgiving, although still lower than the busiest summer weekends in June.
The Transportation Department reports that because airfares haven't kept pace with inflation, tickets cost about 14% less in real terms than in 2000.
"It's a great time to fly as airlines are staffed for the season, they continue to build on their on-time performance and air travel remains a great bargain," says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the industry group.
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