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Dec. 8 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. airlines will carry 43.6 million passengers during the Christmas-New Year’s holiday season, a 3.1 percent increase from a year earlier, as travel demand rises, the Air Transport Association estimated.

As many as 2.3 million people a day may fly during the 21-day period from Dec. 16 through Jan. 5, the Washington-based trade group for the major U.S. carriers said in a statement today. Planes may average as much as 90 percent full on the busiest days, according to the association.

“With demand for air travel showing signs of improvement, airlines are hoping to see industry profitability continue into 2011,” James C. May, the group’s chief executive officer, said in the statement.

The federal government may open some restricted airspace during the period to ease congestion, as it did during the Thanksgiving holidays, the group said.

The three days leading up to Christmas Eve, the five days after Christmas and the two days after New Year’s Day are expected to be the busiest, based on data from the 2009 holidays, the association said. Its estimate for last year’s traffic was 42.3 million passengers.

Southwest Airlines Co. led the biggest U.S. carriers in November with a 10.7 percent gain in traffic as measured in miles flown by paying passengers. US Airways Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. both reported increases for the month of more than 5 percent from a year earlier.

To contact the reporter on this story: Juliann Neher in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ed Dufner at

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