The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has opened military airspace across the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico to ease pressure on commercial airline routes for the festive period, and so far delays have been kept to a minimum despite heavy downpours from a storm slamming the West Coast.
The agency estimates that just under 44,000 flights will take off today – the second-busiest day of the holiday season – and so far about 56 have been delayed, according to tracking service FlightAware. That figure equates to around 0.12%.
Thursday was the busiest day for flying, with just under 49,000 flights taking to the skies, with 108 flight cancelations, or 0.22%.
FILE - Travelers wait line to check in at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, Georgia, US, on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023. (Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
It means good news so far for passengers traveling home or going elsewhere for Christmas, as earlier this week U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned that winter weather would be a challenge as the year-end holiday travel period is expected to be one of the busiest in decades.
Pockets of heavy snow are forecast as the storm makes its way across the central U.S. this weekend. Rain will also begin to pick up Saturday night across the southern Plains in a swath from Kansas to Texas, according to Fox Weather. Coverage will increase on Christmas Eve, with rain stretching from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast.
The FAA has opened military airspace, and it is also allowing commercial passenger aircraft that have scheduled flight departures well in advance to take off first, while private business jets that often schedule late must wait to help expedite air travel.
This year has seen the lowest cancelation rates in five years – even lower than before the pandemic, the FAA said last month.
FILE - The baggage claim area at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, Georgia, US, on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023. ( Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Buttigieg said that even during the busiest days of Thanksgiving, travel cancelations stayed below 1%.
He said officials would be receiving "down-to-the-minute weather predictions" from National Weather Service meteorologists and use those to inform exact arrival and departure routes across the busiest parts of the U.S. airspace.
The number of Americans traveling during this period this year will reach the second-highest level in more than two decades, according to AAA estimates released earlier this month.
The organization predicted that 115.2 million people will take trips at least 50 miles away from where they live during the period from December 23 to New Year's Day this year. That is a 2.2% increase over the prior year and the second-highest number since AAA started tracking holiday travel in 2000.
FILE - Passengers move through the terminal at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Linthicum, Maryland, on Dec. 22, 2023, ahead of the holiday travel rush. ( JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
The low delay numbers so far this week come after a chaotic travel period for airline passengers last year.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) fined Southwest Airlines $140 million following the cancelations of nearly 17,000 flights, which left more than two million travelers stranded during a chaotic holiday season last year. Southwest canceled the flights over the last 10 days of December 2022.
Most of the penalty, which is 30 times larger than any in DOT history, will go toward compensating future Southwest passengers affected by cancelations or significant delays, the DOT said.
FOX Business’ Stephen Sorace, Greg Norman and Aislinn Murphy contributed to this report.