Thanksgiving Flight Patterns

The New York Times recently published an article summarizing Thanksgiving flight patterns using data collected from Google flights. Interestingly, it listed Miami, FL, followed by Orlando, FL, as the two most popular flight destinations in the week leading up to Thanksgiving. Not only might this reflect people’s tendencies to visit warmer destinations, but also (if people congregate at the eldest family member’s home for dinner) it may reflect the high proportion of grandparents who choose to settle in Florida.

The article also points out a funny upward spike in those flying on Thanksgiving day, at around midday, labeling the majority of Americans as procrastinators or workaholics who “wait until the last possible moment” to fly home. It fails to acknowledge, though, that flight prices varied considerably in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, which probably influenced demand and thus when people booked flights. When I was searching for flights, Tues/Wed were arguably the most expensive days to fly, whereas Thursday afternoon was the cheapest — cheaper by over $400. (Flying on Sun/Mon wasn’t an option for me because I had to be at school on Mon and Tues.) I would have loved to fly home on Tuesday evening or Wednesday given that I had Wednesday off, but I waited until Thursday for a more affordable flight.

It would be interesting to look into the price elasticity of demand for airline flights. I can think of two theoretical, opposite explanations for why demand elasticity for air travel may have changed in recent years: the boom in low-cost flights and availability of internet comparison sites such as Google Flights makes consumers more sensitive to price changes and thus increases price elasticity, whereas the drop in airline ticket costs overall may make the expense not significant enough for consumers to worry about minor price differences, and thus demand stays relatively inelastic (plus people oftentimes do not have flexible travel dates when traveling on business, in the case of an emergency, etc.).

There seems to be quite a bit of controversy over whether demand is elastic or not, as airline boards claim demand is elastic whereas airlines themselves claim demand is inelastic. This might make sense as an airline that demonstrates inelastic demand would be incentivized to keep prices high to generate more revenue. A report by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) demonstrates that demand at the route level (i.e., demand for travel along a route from point A to point B) is elastic, ranging from -1.2 to -1.5, although demand at the national level is fairly inelastic.

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