DALLAS (AP) – Determined to recapture the Thanksgiving traditions disrupted by the pandemic last year, millions of Americans will load their cars or pile into planes to gather again with friends and family.
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 rose nearly 30% in the past two weeks through Tuesday, according to data from 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% lower than on the same days in 2019.
At Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Christian Titus was on his way to an extended family in Canada. 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’s dangerous. But you love these people, so do what you can to stay safe around them.”
Meka Starling and her husband were pleased that many members of their extended family saw their two-year-old son Kaiden for the first time at a major Thanksgiving gathering in Linden, New Jersey.
“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 delighted,” said Starling, 44, of West Point, Mississippi.
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 paying customers to occupy more than 90% of its seats 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 Wednesday noon on the east coast, airlines in the United States had canceled around 70 flights, an unusually low number, according to FlightAware. The Federal Aviation Administration reported very few airports experiencing significant delays.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Pilots Union, said things seemed to be going pretty well by late morning on Wednesday. He said he had not received any reports of major incidents involving recalcitrant 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 lines that snaked 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 “a group of too many people”.
“As long as we wear our masks, I’ve done my part,” she said. “The rest is enjoying my vacation.”
For vacation travelers who are traveling by car, the higher prices at the petrol pump are likely to be the greatest pain. The national average for gasoline was $ 3.40 a gallon on Tuesday, according to the AAA, more than 60% more than last Thanksgiving.
These prices could be one of several factors that will put some leisure travelers off. In a survey conducted by Gasbuddy that tracks pump prices, about half of the app users who responded said high prices will affect their travel plans this week. Around two in five said they did not travel as much for various reasons.
President Joe Biden, in coordination with other major energy consumers, ordered 50 million barrels of oil from America’s strategic reserves on Tuesday to help reduce energy costs. US measures are targeting global energy markets, but also aiming to help Americans cope with higher inflation and rising prices before Thanksgiving and winter vacation travel.
The price at the pump came as a bit of a shock to Tye Reedy, who flew from Tennessee to California and borrowed his friend’s truck for sightseeing. Gasoline was $ 5 a gallon at the Alameda Chevron, and it was $ 100 to fill the truck.
“We didn’t travel last year because of COVID restrictions and anything,” Reedy said. “But you know, we’re confident enough … with the vaccine and where things are now with the virus, we’ve been comfortable traveling.”
Contributors to this report were AP staff Ted Shaffrey and Seth Wenig in Newark, New Jersey, Terry Chea in Alameda, Calif., Brian Skoloff in Phoenix, and Thomas Peipert in Denver.