DALLAS – Determined to recapture the Thanksgiving traditions disrupted by the pandemic last year, millions of Americans will load their cars or pile into planes to meet up with friends and family again.
Air travelers are expected to hit or even exceed pre-pandemic levels this week, and the AAA auto club predicts 48.3 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home during the holiday season, an increase of almost 4 million compared to the previous year despite the sharp rise in gasoline prices.
Many feel encouraged by the fact that nearly 200 million Americans are now fully vaccinated. But it also means setting aside concerns about a resurgent virus at a time when the U.S. is now averaging nearly 100,000 new infections a day and hospitals in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado, and Arizona are seeing alarming increases in patient numbers.
The seven-day daily average of newly reported cases has increased nearly 30 percent in the past two weeks through Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says unvaccinated people should not travel, although it is unclear whether this recommendation will work.
More than 2.2 million travelers streamed through the airport checkpoints last Friday, the busiest day since the pandemic that devastated travel early last year. From Friday to Tuesday, the number of air travelers in the US on the same days last year was more than double and less than 9 percent lower than on the same days in 2019.
At Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Christian Titus traveled to Canada to visit his extended family. Titus says he spent much of the pandemic indoors but is ready to fly in a crowded plane because he misses being close to his family. He was given a booster shot to increase his protection.
“My mental health improves when I’m with my family during these times,” he said. “Yes, it is dangerous. But you love these people, so do what you can to stay safe around them. “
Meka Starling and her husband looked forward to seeing many of their extended family first meet their two-year-old son Kaiden at a major Thanksgiving gathering in Linden, NJ
“We posted pictures on Facebook so many of them would have seen pictures of him, but to actually touch him and talk to him I’m thrilled,” said Starling, 44, of West Point, Miss.
For their part, airlines are hoping to avoid repeating the massive flight cancellations – more than 2,300 apiece – that tracked Southwest and American Airlines at different times last month.
The mishaps started with bad weather in one part of the country and got out of hand. In the past, airlines had enough pilots, flight attendants, and other workers to recover from many disruptions in a day or two. However, they are finding it harder to recover now because they are few and far between after urging thousands of employees to quit when travel collapsed last year.
American, Southwest, Delta, and United have all suspended lately, which gives airlines and industry watchers hope that flights stay on track this week.
“The airlines are prepared for the holidays,” said Helane Becker, airline analyst at the financial services company Cowen. “You’re reducing the number of flights, the industry has enough pilots, they are sending more flight attendants through their (training) academies, and they are paying the flight attendants a premium – what I’ll call dangerous goods wages – to encourage people not to call off the job . “
Airlines currently have little margin for error. American expects more than 90 percent of its seats to be occupied by paying customers on Tuesday. That’s a relapse to pre-pandemic vacation travel.
“There’s not much room to put people on another flight if something goes wrong,” said Dennis Tajer, the airline’s pilot and spokesman for the American Pilots Union.
By late Wednesday afternoon on the east coast, US airlines had canceled fewer than 100 flights, an unusually low number, according to FlightAware. The Federal Aviation Administration reported very few airports experiencing significant delays.
“The airport was easy. It took us five minutes to get through security, ”said Ashley Gregory, who was returning to Dallas with her husband and daughter after a few days in Jacksonville, Florida.
“But our luggage is running late,” she added, glancing at the empty baggage carousel at the Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport.
Several travelers interviewed by DFW said their flights were full but people had behaved well. The Justice Department said Wednesday it would give priority to prosecuting passengers who violate federal air travel law – the latest in a series of raids against violence on airplanes. The worst incidents – some captured on video and posted on social media – injured flight attendants.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Pilots Union, said he had not received any reports of major incidents involving passengers in several days.
“I don’t think anything is going to do videos that is good,” said Murray. “That’s just another layer of stress, complexity, and fatigue on top of everything else that’s going on.”
At Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, hundreds of travelers waited in security queues that weave their way in half a dozen loops. The terminals were full of people, and since the seats were all occupied, travelers sat on the floors while they waited for their flights. There were also long lines for groceries at a time when some Phoenix Airport workers were on strike over wages and benefits.
At the Denver airport, Rasheeda Golden arrived with her boyfriend and sister from Houston on their way on a snowmobile trip over Thanksgiving.
“It’s exciting to travel now, especially when things are opening up again and there is a sense of normalcy. I welcome it, ”she said.
Golden added that she is not worried about flying, but remains cautious when she is in “too many crowds”.
“As long as we wear our masks, I’ve done my part,” she said. “The rest is to enjoy my vacation.”
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