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The day before Thanksgiving actually isn’t the busiest time to fly

A Southwest Airlines passenger plane crosses the waxing gibbous moon in Whittier, Saturday, May 30, 2015.
AP Photo/Nick Ut
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  • David Yanofsky
By David Yanofsky

Editor of code, visuals, and data

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Ever hear people say the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year in the United States? It’s a common refrain, but at the airport, at least, it’s not even remotely true.

We analyzed data from 11 US airlines, compiled by Planestats.com, to determine when air travel actually peaks across the country based on the number of seats on scheduled flights. The day before Thanksgiving, which this year is Nov. 25, will be just the 121st busiest day of the year—busier than average, but not by much.

Here is what the entirety of 2015 looks like:

The busiest days for air travel are nearly all on summer weekends, when Americans are taking vacations. But there is one exception: The second busiest day will be Nov. 29, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Here are the 50 busiest days in 2015—all but two of them in June, July, or August:

1
Aug. 7
2,909,670
2
Nov. 29
2,905,136
3
July 24
2,895,706
4
July 31
2,895,692
5
July 17
2,894,507
6
Aug. 6
2,894,325
7
July 10
2,893,232
8
Aug. 3
2,892,621
9
July 6
2,885,890
10
July 27
2,884,037
11
July 9
2,883,908
12
July 30
2,883,840
13
July 23
2,883,420
14
July 16
2,881,476
15
July 20
2,880,164
16
June 26
2,880,008
17
July 2
2,878,739
18
July 13
2,877,489
19
June 19
2,877,453
20
Aug. 14
2,875,768
21
Aug. 5
2,871,882
22
June 25
2,867,803
23
Aug. 13
2,866,798
24
June 12
2,866,111
25
Aug. 10
2,865,302
26
June 22
2,865,069
27
June 18
2,864,518
28
Aug. 4
2,862,339
29
July 29
2,858,388
30
July 15
2,857,097
31
July 22
2,856,970
32
July 8
2,854,430
33
June 15
2,853,271
34
June 11
2,853,030
35
July 28
2,850,783
36
July 21
2,850,325
37
July 7
2,849,448
38
Aug. 17
2,848,647
39
July 14
2,848,598
40
June 24
2,841,743
41
June 8
2,841,349
42
June 5
2,840,331
43
June 23
2,835,564
44
Aug. 12
2,835,137
45
June 17
2,831,788
46
Aug. 11
2,828,132
47
June 4
2,825,569
48
June 16
2,821,395
49
June 10
2,815,565
50
Dec 18
2,815,145

Thanksgiving itself is undoubtedly the least busy day to travel, with just 1.72 million seats scheduled to fly. The next lowest, Halloween, had 2.06 million seats scheduled.

Here are the busiest and slowest days at each of the top 25 airports in the US:

Some of the data are skewed by the fact that airlines are flying an increasing number of passengers, so more recent dates are likely to be busier:

If we look at the 12 months ending on Sept. 1, 2015, instead of the 2015 calendar year, the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2014 only ranks as the 41st most popular day, not the second.

The number of seats scheduled is only an approximation of the number of people who travel by air because flights get canceled, planes are often not completely full, and some people miss their flights or choose not to take them. US airlines’ load factors—the measure of filled seats—are highest in summer.

The figures presented here may also slightly overstate the number of available seats nationwide due to flights operating under a code-sharing agreements being counted twice.

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