(File photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK -- The recipe for Thanksgiving travel is likely to make travelers a little bitter this year.
Americans can expect airports to be busier and planes to be fuller than ever, according to a forecast by the main trade association for U.S. airlines two weeks ahead of the holiday. And fares are already more expensive than a year ago.
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Airlines for America expects nearly 24 million travelers to fly from Friday, Nov. 16, through Tuesday, Nov. 27. That's up slightly from a year ago. Last year's tally was flat from 2010. Traffic on the nation's airlines is still 10 percent below the peak travel years of 2006 and 2007.
This year's uptick is in line with "the sluggish but consistent economic recovery," aviation consultant Mark Kiefer said. The unemployment rate has improved in recent months, as has consumer confidence - two key indicators of travel demand.
For those traveling on the busiest days around Thanksgiving, planes are expected to be close to 90 percent full, the trade group says. That would be a record for the holiday. That forecast is an average, so expect most flights at peak hours to be completely full.
Sunday, Nov. 25, is projected as the busiest travel day, followed by Wednesday, Nov. 21, and Monday, Nov. 26.
Flights will be packed tighter because there are fewer of them. Airlines have been reducing flights to match demand, which in turn allows them to raise prices.
Domestic fares are up 4 percent so far this year compared with the first 10 months of 2011, according to the industry group. Kiefer expects that slight increase in fares to continue as airlines keep scaling back when they can.
Cutting flights also allows airlines to save on fuel, often their biggest expense.
Collectively U.S. airlines' revenue rose 5.6 percent in the first nine months of this year. Fuel costs rose by 6.2 percent, cutting the amount earned per passenger. On average the 10 largest U.S. airlines made just 50 cents for every passenger they flew from January through September, Airlines for America said.