Thanksgiving Week Will Push Airport Crowds to Pandemic Highs

Nov. 17, 2020
But it will be a substantially subdued travel holiday. Airline schedules are down about 40% to 45% from a year ago, even with flights added for the last week of November.

Airports and airlines are expecting their biggest crowds since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis next week for Thanksgiving, even as a surge in coronavirus cases hit the country and government warnings square off against the usually busy travel holiday.

During the peak Thanksgiving week, American Airlines is adding about 500 flights a day, Southwest is bringing on an additional 300 flights and United Airlines is putting about 1,400 more flights on its schedule.

DFW International Airport, where traffic is still down by 45% compared to last year, is expecting 1.3 million passengers to go through the airport during the busy week. The much smaller Dallas Love Field is expecting 13,000 to 15,000 passengers a day, although airport spokesman Chris Perry said Dallas-based Southwest Airlines has been routing more traffic through Love Field.

"We are going to be overstaffing to make sure that we don't have any large lines during Thanksgiving and the holidays," said Amy Williams, the federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration at Dallas Love Field. "And that way, we can tell any employees that don't feel well to stay home."

Even the COVID-19 crisis, the biggest public health emergency in this country in a century, isn't enough to stop people from flying this holiday season to gather with family and friends, although they will have to do it under strange and cautious circumstances. Airports in North Texas are now equipped with acrylic barriers, social distancing markers and mandatory face-covering rules.

But it will be a substantially subdued travel holiday. Airline schedules are down about 40% to 45% from a year ago, even with flights added for the last week of November. AAA Texas said only 151,000 Texans are expected to fly, less than 4% of all travelers in the state.

States such as California have created restrictions on how many people can get together for gatherings and how long those gatherings should be. A growing number of regions in the U.S. require quarantines for travelers coming into those areas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging Americans to limit the number of people they have over for gatherings and to have meals outside.

Airlines themselves are touting studies showing the low risk of catching COVID-19 during a flight because of air filtering technologies, but carriers are still quick to toss passengers who flout the mask rules.

Southwest, which has been limiting sales to keep middle seats empty, will start filling planes to capacity on Dec. 1, just after the holiday season. That follows a series of studies, many sponsored by the airline industry, that showed that the spread of COVID-19 inside planes was lower than in other public places.

"When you actually look at the data that's been collected ... you cannot see any measurable difference in risk with the middle seat being open," said Harvard University researcher Jack McCarthy, who put together one of the studies on airplane safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

TSA has only recorded one day so far since the beginning of the pandemic when more than 1 million passengers went through checkpoints. That Sunday, Oct. 18, was the end of fall break in many parts of the country, and DFW said more than 142,000 passengers went through the airport that day.

That pandemic record will likely be broken again in the coming days with the first major travel holiday since the end of summer.

Meanwhile, passengers will still have to trek through increasingly busy airports this holiday season looking for food, supplies and a place to rest before and in between flights.

About a quarter of airport eateries and retailers are still closed and some have gone out of business, while those remaining are adapting to serving more carry-out meals and have closed their bars.

Williams, who has directed security at Love Field for TSA for 18 years, said the COVID-19 pandemic has added a whole new set of challenges to the security agency, which was designed to stop terrorist threats, not necessarily health threats. TSA agents are now handling fewer boarding passes and photo IDs. Screening agents are wearing masks and face shields and changing gloves between pat-downs.

Ken Buchanan, DFW International Airport's executive vice president for revenue management and customer experience, said the airport has posted signs, installed Plexiglass barriers and enacted other safety precautions, but warned that there are still times when people tend to gather too closely.

"There is more of an opportunity to spread out with fewer people in the airport," Buchanan said. "Obviously when it's time to board, people congregate and wait near the gate. We are trying to encourage them to take their turn because the plane isn't going to take off without them."

The airport has installed touchless soap and towel dispensers in bathrooms along with hand sanitizer dispensers. Buchanan said food delivery has become increasingly popular inside the airport with couriers that will bring food and retail goods such as charging cords right up to gates.

"We were fortunate to have it (restaurant-to-gate delivery) implemented and underway when COVID hit," Buchanan said. "People are really looking for a touchless experience now."


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