Air travel surges as Thanksgiving holiday approaches despite health warnings

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reports that more than 1 million people flew through U.S. domestic airports on Friday. This number is the second-highest daily total since the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring. This is notable due to the fact we all have been told over and over again by officials in recent days, from the federal level to local levels, to avoid traditional Thanksgiving gatherings this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That number is still substantially behind normal levels of air travel but it shows that people are dismissing suggestions to stay at home for the holiday this year despite the latest wave of coronavirus cases spiking in hot spots across the country.

A total of 1,019,836 people passed through U.S. airport security screening portals on Friday, 40% of the nearly 2.6 million who flew on the equivalent day last year, according to TSA data.

Since passenger counts plummeted from mid-March, only Oct. 18 had more people boarding flights. Friday’s total was well above the one-week average of 829,000 passengers a day.

The increase came in spite of recent warnings from carriers, including American Airlines Group Inc., United Airlines Holdings Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co., about softening holiday travel demand. The period around Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest for travel.

“There has been a deceleration in system bookings and an uptick in cancellations as a result of the recent spike in Covid-19 cases,” United said in a regulatory filing.

In October Dr. Fauci began advising people to strongly think about canceling family celebrations during the Thanksgiving holiday. He began sounding the alarm that large group gatherings are a terrible idea, given that now is a particularly dangerous time for the spread of the virus. The CDC came out with its holiday travel recommendations on Thursday – don’t do it. There is no doubt that the recommendation from the CDC, for those waiting on that agency’s recommendation, came too late to change any travel plans already made by families all over the country. People buy airline tickets well before seven days out in order to get a decent price and to schedule the most convenient time to travel. Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest times of the year for airlines.

Dr. Fauci has been giving interviews and providing his guidance on how to handle the upcoming holiday season. He recommends that only the members of a household celebrate together. Leave the large extended family and friends gatherings for next year. Other public officials are delivering the same advice.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recommended that people “think twice” about traveling over the holidays.

Various governors have echoed the call to restrict gatherings for the popular holiday, while not necessarily issuing formal guidance.

“Think about those you love and what you would do to protect them. It’s up to each and every one of us to be responsible and prevent the spread of Covid this holiday season,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said Saturday on Twitter.

Fauci appeared on some of the Sunday morning political shows today. When he was asked about the large number of people traveling by air, he said he is more concerned about the number of people in airports than of the people on individual flights. We know that airlines have requirements that must be met in order for a customer to board the plane, one of which is wearing a face mask. In airports, Dr. Fauci said, people are laxer about wearing masks and don’t follow social distancing guidelines. Even with masks in place, people still need to remember to social distance.

Health officials have warned that the burgeoning wave of infections could soon overwhelm the healthcare system if people do not follow public health guidance, particularly around not traveling and mingling with other households for Thursday’s traditional Thanksgiving celebration.

Still, video footage on Twitter showed more than a hundred people, wearing masks, crowding departure gates at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday. Lines for TSA checkpoints and kiosks at Chicago O’Hare airport were also long on Friday and “reminiscent of pre-pandemic times,” local TV station WGN reported.

Despite the strong showing of air travelers, most people will travel by car if they are going away from home to celebrate the holiday.

The number of Thanksgiving air travelers was expected to decline by 47.5% from 2019, but nonetheless, 2.4 million people were forecast to take to the skies, according to a report earlier this month from the American Automobile Association. It said the number traveling by car was expected to fall by only about 4%.

“For those who are considering making a trip, the majority will go by car, which provides the flexibility to modify holiday travel plans up until the day of departure,” AAA Senior Vice President Paula Twidale said in a statement.

The good news is that a vaccine is on the horizon and more therapeutics, too. Doctors have learned how to treat the coronavirus in better, more efficient ways and the death rates are falling, despite increases in hospitalizations. We just have to hang in there a little longer until more herd immunity takes over and our lives return to a more normal existence.

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