The New York Times has come up with a novel theory: People who are traveling this holiday will stay away longer to get lower airfares. Someone who leaves a week before Thanksgiving and comes back a week after will not have to pay the premium for an airline ticket to travel on the busiest days of the year.
The evidence that people are trying to dodge high ticket prices is anecdotal. The Times writes that executives at several major airlines said they noticed the shift this year, with "the crush starting several days earlier than usual."
But are people doing this to save money, or do they just have more time off? Individuals who are unemployed obviously have extra time. But those who still have jobs may have decided that, after one of the worst years in the history of the American economy, it's OK to take a break. A vacation can be a good antidote for anxiety.
If it's true that people are taking trips of longer duration this Thanksgiving, the airlines may be the net winners. Seats are likely to be sold out on the busiest days regardless. Meanwhile, people seeking lower fares may have filled up planes that flew several days ago, and may return home on flights that will depart after this Sunday; planes that might have been half-empty last year could end up sold out for the current holiday. The airlines will announce November load factors next month, and the numbers may give this "longer vacation" notion some credence.
AAA predicts that overall air travel will be down this holiday: There are simply too many people who don't have jobs or access to discretionary spending money. Maybe they are the ones who are getting visited by their slightly more well-off friend and relatives.
There is one final reason that people may be willing to pay for plane tickets, especially if they can get a bargain: The Fed says the recession is over. So do most economists. But, the consumer confidence and jobless numbers say otherwise, at least to the average citizen. He may be girding his loins for another hard year. A long Thanksgiving break may simply be a way to recharge batteries for another tough year in 2010.
Douglas A. McIntyre is an editor at 24/7 Wall St.