NEW YORK -- 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 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 that are limiting would-be travelers' disposable income. About 1.6 million to 2.3 million people are forecast to fly each day between today and the first week of January.
Even with fewer passengers, fliers won't have more room. Flights will be full because airlines have reduced the number of flights and planes, the trade group said.
Packed planes don't just mean less leg room. Fuller planes also mean more delays if something goes wrong. Last year, when major snowstorms shut airports and crippled airlines, millions of travelers waited days to find other travel options.
Airlines for America didn't offer a specific forecast for what passengers are paying to fly. 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, Airlines for America notes airlines are holding on to less than a penny in profit for every dollar in revenue. That's because operating expenses, mostly due to higher fuel prices, are rising as fast as sales.
Some helpful tips
Travelers bracing for packed planes and long lines should keep these tips in mind to make travel run smoothly:
Check in a full 24 hours ahead of your flight. This will help get the seat you want and possibly give you a leg up later on. Some airlines board fliers according to check-in times.
Don't forget your bags. When you check in online, make sure you indicate if you have a checked bag. Checking in luggage online will save time at the airport.
Arm yourself with information. Look up the airline's customer service number and its contract of carriage (the list of rights you have on a flight) on the airline's website before you leave. It'll pay off if something goes wrong.
Bring snacks and an empty water bottle. You can fill the water bottle after you go through security.
Don't wrap gifts. The TSA will unwrap anything they deem suspicious. Don't risk it.
Pack sensibly. The holidays might not be the best time to stuff a carry-on to avoid a checked-bag fee. Overhead bins will be full.
At the airport
Arrive early. It's the easiest way to de-stress your trip.
Plot your attack. There are smartphone applications that let you check everything from the emptiest parking lots to security wait times. You can sign up for flight alerts through the airlines or online travel sites that will let you know if your flight is delayed or canceled.
Wear slip-on shoes. They're the easiest to get on and off at security. This year, kids under 12 won't have to remove their shoes.
Think like a seasoned traveler. Have liquids in a plastic bag outside your suitcase before approaching security. Take off your belt and remove everything from your pockets (new body scanners are more sensitive to those items than metal detectors). Have your boarding pass and ID in your hand to speed things.