Reporting was contributed by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Carl Zimmer, Lynsey Chutel and Nick Cumming-Bruce.

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Thanksgiving Holiday Travel Will Test Airlines

Widespread flight cancellations. Excruciating waits for customer service. Unruly passengers.

And that was all before the holiday travel season.

Even in normal times, the days around Thanksgiving are a delicate period for the airlines. But this week is the industry’s biggest test since the pandemic began, as millions more Americans — emboldened by vaccinations and reluctant to spend another holiday alone — are expected to take to the skies than during last year’s holidays.

A lot is riding on the carriers’ ability to pull it off smoothly.

“For many people, this will be the first time they’ve gotten together with family, maybe in a year, year and a half, maybe longer, so it’s very significant,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot who is a spokeswoman for FlightAware, an aviation data provider. “If it goes poorly, that’s when people might rethink travel plans for Christmas. And that’s what the airlines don’t want.”

The Transportation Security Administration said it expected to screen about 20 million passengers at airports in the 10 days that began Friday, a figure approaching prepandemic levels. Two million passed through checkpoints on Saturday alone, about twice as many as on the Saturday before last Thanksgiving.

lengthy note to customers last month.

His apology came after Southwest canceled nearly 2,500 flights over a four-day stretch — nearly 18 percent of its scheduled flights, according to FlightAware — as a brief bout of bad weather and an equally short-lived air traffic control staffing shortage snowballed.

Weeks later, American Airlines suffered a similar collapse, canceling more than 2,300 flights in four days — nearly 23 percent of its schedule — after heavy winds slowed operations at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, its largest hub.

American and Southwest have said they are working to address the problems, offering bonuses to encourage employees to work throughout the holiday period, stepping up hiring and pruning ambitious flight plans.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing roughly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, gave the carriers good marks for their preparations.

“First and foremost, we are getting demand back after the biggest crisis aviation has ever faced,” she said.

“I think there has been a lot of good planning,” she added. “And barring a major weather event, I think that the airlines are going to be able to handle the demand.”

Flight crews have had to contend with overwork and disruptive and belligerent passengers, leaving them drained and afraid for their safety.

Helene Albert, 54, a longtime flight attendant for American Airlines, said she took an 18-month leave by choice that was offered because of the pandemic. When she returned to work on Nov. 1 on domestic routes, she said, she saw a difference in passengers from when she began her leave.

“People are hostile,” she said. “They don’t know how to wear masks and they act shocked when I tell them we don’t have alcohol on our flights anymore.”

begun investigations into 991 episodes involving passenger misbehavior in 2021, more than in the last seven years combined. In some cases, the disruptions have forced flights to be delayed or even diverted — an additional strain on air traffic.

gathering storm systems were threatening to deliver gusty winds and rain that could interfere with flights, but for the most part, the weather is not expected to cause major disruptions.

“Overall, the news is pretty good in terms of the weather in general across the country cooperating with travel,” said Jon Porter, the chief meteorologist for AccuWeather. “We’re not dealing with any big storms across the country, and in many places the weather will be quite favorable for travel.”

Even so, AAA, the travel services organization, recommended that airline passengers arrive two hours ahead of departure for domestic flights and three hours ahead for international destinations during the Thanksgiving travel wave.

Some lawmakers warned that a Monday vaccination deadline for all federal employees could disrupt T.S.A. staffing at airports, resulting in long lines at security checkpoints, but the agency said those concerns were unfounded.

“The compliance rate is very high, and we do not anticipate any disruptions because of the vaccination requirements,” R. Carter Langston, a T.S.A. spokesman, said in a statement on Friday.

With many people able to do their jobs or classes remotely, some travelers left town early, front-running what are typically the busiest travel days before the holiday.

TripIt, a travel app that organizes itineraries, said 33 percent of holiday travelers booked Thanksgiving flights for last Friday and Saturday, according to its reservation data. (That number was slightly down from last year, when 35 percent of travelers left on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving, and marginally higher than in 2019, when 30 percent of travelers did so, TripIt said.)

Among those taking advantage of the flexibility was Emilia Lam, 18, a student at New York University who traveled home to Houston on Saturday. She is doing her classes this week remotely, she said, and planned her early getaway to get ahead of the crush. “The flights are going to be way more crowded,” she said, as Thursday approaches.

Robert Chiarito and Maria Jimenez Moya contributed reporting.

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High Gas Prices Force Sacrifices, Like Travel and Dining Out

A driver in Belleville, N.J., cut his cable and downsized his apartment to save money for gas. A retiree in Vallejo, Calif., said he had stopped driving to go fishing because the miles cost too much in fuel. An auto repairman in Toms River, N.J., doesn’t go to restaurants as often. And an Uber Eats deliveryman said he couldn’t afford frequent visits to his family and friends, some of whom live 60 miles away.

“Times are tough right now,” Chris Gonzalez, 31, the Uber Eats driver, said as he filled up his tank at a Safeway gas station off Interstate 80 in California.

Millions of American drivers have acutely felt the recent surge in gas prices, which last month hit their highest level since 2014. The national average for a gallon of gas is $3.41, which is $1.29 more than it was a year ago, according to AAA. Even after a recent price dip in crude oil, gasoline remains 7 cents more per gallon than it was a month ago.

While consumers are seeing a steady rise in the prices of many goods and services, the cost of gas is especially visible. It is displayed along highways across the country, including in areas where a gallon has climbed as high as $7.59.

survey from the fuel savings platform GasBuddy.

instructed the Federal Trade Commission this week to investigate why prices at the pump haven’t declined as much as might be expected, citing the possibility of “illegal conduct” by oil and gas companies. The administration is also facing calls from Congress to tap the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said would help struggling Americans.

Gas prices have gone up in part because of fluctuations in supply and demand. Demand for oil fell precipitously in the early months of the pandemic, so the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other oil-producing nations cut production. In the United States, reduced demand led to a substantial decline in drilling; the country’s oil rig count was down nearly 70 percent in summer 2020.

But over the past year, demand for oil recovered far faster than OPEC restored its production, and crude oil prices doubled to as much as $84 a barrel. (Since Nov. 9, the price has declined to just over $76.)

higher in the past; in 2008, the national average rose above $4.10 per gallon. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be equivalent to $5.16 today.) They’re optimistic that the increase in travel and gas demand is a reflection of the economy’s rebound from the pandemic, though they worry that rising prices could make people cut back on other spending.

“If gas prices rise so much that it affects consumers’ disposable incomes, this would weigh on discretionary spending,” said Fawad Razaqzada, a market analyst at ThinkMarkets. “It would be bad news for retailers.”

In California, where the average price of a gallon is the highest in the nation, at more than $4.60, drivers said they were changing their behavior. Some sought out cheaper spots, like Costco and Safeway gas stations, to save a few dollars.

At an Arco station in San Francisco’s NoPa neighborhood, a line of cars extended into the crowded street on Thursday. Some drivers searched for change. Others grumbled about the prices, which have shot up to as much as $4.49 at the Arco — known locally for its normally cheap rates — and up to $5.85 in the most expensive part of the city.

Keith Crawford, 57, who was filling up his Kia Optima, said he had taken to getting smaller amounts of gas twice a week to soften the blow to his bank account.

“You have to spread it out in order to stay afloat,” said Mr. Crawford, a concierge. “It’s part of the budget now.”

Thirty miles northeast of San Francisco in Vallejo, drivers lined up at the Safeway gas station off I-80, where the price was $4.83 per gallon. Several put the blame for their bills on the Biden administration.

“It’s Biden, Gavin Newsom — look at the gas taxes we pay,” said Kevin Altman, a 54-year-old retiree, referring to California’s governor.

Mr. Altman paid $50 to fill up his Jeep and estimated the gas would last him just two days. He said he had stopped driving to go fishing in nearby Benicia to avoid using too much gas, and would do all his Christmas shopping online this year.

The cost can be especially challenging for people who own businesses that depend on transit. Mahmut Sonmez, 33, who runs a car service, spends nearly $800 on gas out of the $2,500 he earns each week driving people around New Jersey. To save money, he moved in September into a Belleville apartment that is $400 cheaper than his previous home. He also cut his cable service and changed cellphone plans.

If gas prices keep rising, Mr. Sonmez said, he will consider changing jobs after nine years in the industry. “Somehow we’ve got to pay the rent,” he said.

In New Jersey, which bans self-service gas, some drivers are directing their ire toward station attendants.

“Every day they’re cursing me out,” said Gaby Marmol, 25, the assistant manager of a BP station in Newark, adding that when she sees how much the customers spend on both gas and convenience store items — $1.19 for ring pops that used to be 50 cents — she feels sympathetic. “We’re just doing our jobs, but they think we set the prices.”

Cheik Diakite, 62, an attendant at a Mobil station in Newark, doesn’t get as many tips as he did before the pandemic, he said, and grows frustrated listening to customers attribute the high prices to Mr. Biden.

Mr. Diakite typically passes afternoons by looking out for his most loyal customers. Bebi Amzad, who works at a nearby school, always has the same request for him: “Fill it up.” But when she pulled in on Thursday, she asked him to give her just $30 worth of gas.

“Today I’m not filling up all the way because I have other expenses,” said Ms. Amzad, 54, who commutes to Newark from Linden, N.J. “Everybody is hurting.”

Because she spends so much on gas and groceries, Ms. Amzad continued, she can’t afford many indulgences. “I don’t go to Marshalls anymore.”

Clifford Krauss contributed reporting.

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