By Nathalie Voit

Airlines are aggressively bolstering operations in preparation for Thanksgiving travel. Approximately 20 million people are expected to pass through airport security checkpoints in the ten-day period starting Friday, Nov. 19, and ending Sunday, Nov. 28, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported. The upcoming days will test whether air carriers can handle the increased number of flyers after more than a year of reduced pandemic travel.

The past year has not been easy for the commercial airline industry, which has yet to recover from a string of operational mishaps at the beginning of the fall that saw American and Southwest Airlines cancel thousands of flights and delay hundreds of others.

The TSA said that the Sunday after Thanksgiving is expected to be the busiest day since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with numbers “close to pre-pandemic levels” this holiday. The busiest day of the year in the agency’s history was Thanksgiving Sunday in 2019, which saw 2.9 million travelers screened at TSA security checkpoints nationwide. The agency is expecting peak numbers on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after.

“The network is brittle,” senior vice president of aviation at consulting firm ICF Samuel Engel said. “With the slightest slip, the airlines are showing they have limited ability to accommodate disruption.”

Between June and October this year, nine of the largest U.S. air carriers canceled 1.9% of flights, according to aviation data provider Cirium. The figure is slightly higher than the 1.6% rate of cancelations recorded during the same period in 2019.

Additionally, airlines have been severely short-staffed since the spring. When the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly halted air travel in 2020, many airlines encouraged employees to take extended absences or otherwise leave, creating a serious staffing shortfall when demand suddenly took off in the spring. The scarcity of available workers, in addition to over-scheduling from short-sighted executives, has made it harder for operations to run smoothly.

“The truth is that mismanagement—primarily in long-term planning and short-term daily execution—feeds the dysfunction, not pilot sick calls,” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association told its members earlier this month.

“One hundred percent of the time when airlines have an operational meltdown, it is because the commercial team got out over their skis and didn’t listen to the operations team,” said United CEO Scott Kirby regarding the high-profile incidents in October.

According to the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) official data released Nov. 5, air travel in August 2021 was 16% short of August 2019 pre-pandemic levels. Nonetheless, air travel in August this year was up 50% from air travel last year during the same period.

The latest numbers point to high demand despite continuing fears over the COVID-19 virus. Expect long lines and packed planes if you’re flying for Thanksgiving.