Holiday flying declines slightly, trade group says

NEW YORK (AP) ? Fewer people will fly this holiday season, but flights will still be packed.

That’s according to a forecast released Tuesday by the main trade group representing U.S. airlines. Airlines for America predicts that about 43.3 million travelers will fly on U.S. carriers over the three-week holiday period, a 1 percent decline from a year earlier. That works out to about 20,000 fewer people per day. The trade group attributes the decline to “lingering economic concerns” and high energy prices.

But fliers won’t have more room to stretch out. Even with fewer passengers, flights will be full because airlines have reduced the number of flights and planes, the trade group says. This will make it even more important for travelers to check in 24 hours ahead of their flights, because some airlines rank boarding order by check-in time.

About 1.6 million to 2.3 million people are forecast to fly each day between Wednesday and the first week of January.

The group didn’t offer a specific forecast for what passengers are paying to fly. But its chief economist, John Heimlich, expects fares in December will be on par with the rest of 2011, or about 10 percent higher than a year ago.

Even with higher fares, A4A says that airlines are holding on to less than 1 penny in profit for every dollar in revenue. That’s because operating expenses, mostly due to higher fuel prices, are climbing just as fast as sales.