The busiest day of Thanksgiving air travel will come before the holiday, not after, Villanova expert predicts

Data shows the pandemic has changed holiday travel trends
People wait in a TSA screening line at Orlando International Airport three days before Thanksgiving in Orlando, Florida, in 2022.
People wait in a TSA screening line at Orlando International Airport three days before Thanksgiving in Orlando, Florida, in 2022. Photo credit Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

If you’re flying for the Thanksgiving holiday this week, you’ll have plenty of company. However, a Villanova University expert in transportation data says the pandemic has altered some of the traditional travel trends.

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Philadelphia International Airport still expects the Sunday after the holiday to be the busiest day for travel, with more than 92,000 travelers. But Villanova mobility expert Dr. Chenfeng Xiong used artificial intelligence and smartphone data to predict that the most heavily traveled day will actually come before Thanksgiving.

Xiong and his team — including Ph.D. student Weiyu Luo, who compiled and analyzed much of the data — found the peak days will be the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, with Wednesday being the busiest, topping pre-pandemic volume.

“For the first time, Tuesday travel also exceeds the pre-pandemic situations. That also jumped way above what we have seen before,” he said.

However, with more people able to work from home, Xiong projects travel after the holiday won’t top 2019 levels. The ability to work remotely eliminates the need to rush home.

“We don’t have to squeeze into that late-night flight and come back. But instead, we could do some flexible work schedules or even work from home on Mondays,” he said.

Overall, he said travel during the 12-day holiday travel period has almost fully bounced back from what it was before COVID-19.

AAA Mid-Atlantic also predicts this week to be one of the busiest travel seasons of the year, and not just in the air.

Across the country, AAA expects 55.4 million travelers will go 50 or more miles to visit loved ones — specifically between Wednesday and Sunday. That includes about 684,000 drivers in the Philadelphia region — about 2.7% up from last year.

Spokesperson Jana Tidwell said AAA expects 2023 Thanksgiving travel to be one of the highest, behind 2019 and 2005.

“We recommend to stay off the roadways Wednesday,” particularly between 2 and 6 p.m., she said. “Wednesday will be the busiest day out there on the roadway and that’s because commuters will be mixing with holiday travelers.”

She suggests drivers leave early in the morning or late at night to avoid the congestion, but be mindful of the stormy weather in Tuesday’s forecast.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images