United Airlines boosts Thanksgiving schedule, expects most travelers since March

Key Points
  • United is adding 1,400 flights during Thanksgiving week on expectations of higher demand.
  • Airlines are focusing on price-sensitive customers booking within the U.S. and Caribbean as long-haul international travel suffers in the pandemic.
  • JetBlue is also adding to its Thanksgiving week schedule.
A United Airlines airplane takes off at San Francisco International Airport.
Gary Hershorn | Corbis News | Getty Images

United Airlines said Monday it plans to boost its schedule during Thanksgiving week, expecting the busiest week since large swaths of the economy shut down at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March.

The Chicago-based airline said it is adding 1,400 flights to its schedule, a more than 9% increase during the week of Nov. 23 and is planning to "swap in larger aircraft when needed to accommodate last-minute demand."

Airline stocks surged Monday after Pfizer and BioNTech reported positive results from their late-stage Covid-19 vaccine trial.

Still, airline schedules and travel are down sharply compared with last year as coronavirus cases surge to record highs. So far this quarter, the Transportation Security Administration screened 32 million people at U.S. airports, down from more than 90 million over the same period last year.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the airline industry on its head: Executives are grappling with not only sharply lower revenue but demand that's concentrated among price-sensitive vacationers traveling domestically. Customers also are waiting longer to book their flights, a sign they are holding out to see how the virus impacts travel.

About half of United's customers will likely book Thanksgiving flights less than a month before departure, the carrier said, up from about 40% of last-minute bookings in 2019.

JetBlue Airways said last week it will add 25 nonstop flights between Nov. 20 and Nov. 30 from the New York City area to Florida, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

"As we head toward the holidays, we're seeing signs of strong demand in certain markets," said Scott Laurence, JetBlue's head of revenue and planning.