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Time is running out to book relatively inexpensive flights over the holidays

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Time is running out if you're hoping to book a relatively inexpensive flight over the holidays. Airlines say demand is strong, and prices are rising quickly, and that means those airlines are back to pulling in huge profits. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Airline executives are as gleeful as kids unwrapping holiday presents as they report big third-quarter profits.

ED BASTIAN: The demand for air travel remains very strong.

SCHAPER: That's Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian, noting that pandemic-weary travelers are back.

BASTIAN: After two years of delaying travel, it is clear that consumers are getting out and traveling the world.

SCHAPER: Ed Bastian predicts it'll be a very strong holiday season, a feeling echoed over at United by chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella.

ANDREW NOCELLA: We are definitely seeing a lot of strength for the holidays. We're obviously approaching the Thanksgiving time period, and our bookings are incredibly strong.

SCHAPER: And Nocella notes a significant change in holiday travel.

NOCELLA: The bookings are a little bit different this year in that they're more spread out across multiple days. That definitely is a new travel pattern for us.

SCHAPER: Fewer Thanksgiving travelers are flying out the Wednesday before and heading home the Sunday after. Those who are able to work remotely are staying longer and spreading out their travel over a week or more, so the Mondays and Tuesdays before and after the holiday are busier. And the same is true at Christmastime, too. As for airfares...

HAYLEY BERG: Overall, the Thanksgiving and Christmas airfares are much higher than last year, but last year was still a pandemic-impacted holiday season.

SCHAPER: Hayley Berg is lead economist for the travel search and booking app Hopper. And she says fares are up 40% or more on some routes because demand is surging while the airlines are not yet back to full capacity.

BERG: Which means we're going to have fewer flights available and more travelers looking to either go home or go on vacation for the holidays. That means that you might be paying a much higher price and not be able to get a seat on the specific flight that you want to take.

SCHAPER: Berg recommends booking holiday travel now because prices are only going to go up more. And she warns that there will likely be some chaos for holiday travelers.

BERG: We do expect the holiday season to be very busy, and that does mean we'll see higher cancellation and delay rates. That said, we're not expecting to see such high volumes of cancellation and delays like we saw this summer.

SCHAPER: Across the industry, airlines say they've been hiring and training more flight crew personnel to prevent the staffing shortages that caused widespread flight disruptions over the summer. And they've cut back on flights to more realistically match their schedules to staffing levels. But some in the industry aren't so sure.

DENNIS TAJER: Right now management continues to stuff the holiday turkey with uncertainty.

SCHAPER: Dennis Tajer is a 737 pilot for American Airlines and spokesman for the pilots union there. He says his airline has not yet fixed the problematic scheduling that left little room for error when bad weather hits or other problems arise.

TAJER: I can tell you - I just got my schedule for November. Our schedules are loaded up to the max again. There's not going to be much room.

SCHAPER: Union pilots and flight attendants at other airlines raised similar concerns. But transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg said this week that airlines do seem better prepared for the upcoming holiday travel season than they were for the tumultuous summer.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.