Airlines brace for busy Thanksgiving, urge travelers to fly even as COVID surges across US

Nov 12, 2020

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The major U.S. airlines and their trade group are preparing for a busy Thanksgiving travel period — and are encouraging Americans to fly — even as the coronavirus pandemic rages across the country.

“I hope you’re flying somewhere” for Thanksgiving, said Airlines for America (A4A) president and CEO Nicholas Calio during a media briefing on Thursday. “I am.”

Calio’s encouragement comes a day after the U.S. Centers and Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans of the dangers of small holiday gatherings during the pandemic. The public health organization said intimate get togethers are an “important contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases” underway across the country.

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New COVID infections hit an all-time peak of more than 134,000 new cases on Nov. 10, according to the latest data available from the CDC. The seven-day moving average of new U.S. cases has risen steadily since mid-September when infection numbers stood at around 34,000 a day.

While case numbers are rising across the country, Midwestern states like Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin are seeing some of the highest numbers.

Despite the COVID spike, many holiday travelers appear ready to fly this Thanksgiving. JetBlue Airways and United Airlines have both added extra flights around the holiday, which this year falls on Thursday, Nov. 26. And A4A data shows that airlines have scheduled more flights — just over 61% of 2019 levels — than in both the weeks before and after Thanksgiving.

Related: Airlines expect a post-coronavirus boom in leisure travel, they just don’t know when

“We do expect a bump for Thanksgiving,” said A4A chief economist John Heimlich during the Thursday briefing. The organization is not releasing its normal travel forecast for the period owing to the uncertainty during the pandemic.

Calio add that A4A expects traveler numbers to be “a lot less” than the more than 31 million who flew during the holiday window in 2019.

The organization’s latest data shows the number of U.S. domestic travelers was down 64% during the week ending Nov. 10 as compared to a year earlier. International travel was even more dire at down nearly three-quarters.

Also on Thursday, the largest U.S. domestic carrier Southwest Airlines indicated that it has seen the return in air travelers slow in November and December. While it did not change its expectations for the months, the trend has slowed from the steady recovery from July through September.

Related: Southwest Airlines won’t block middle seats for Christmas flights

Southwest cited the coronavirus surge as well as the U.S. election on Nov. 3 among reasons for the slower recovery.

Aside from the safety of destinations and family gatherings, A4A reiterated the safety of flying itself citing multiple recent studies. A recent Harvard review of available data found that the aircraft cabin is a safe environment with air filtration, enhanced cleaning measures and mask mandates in place.

“You’re safer on an airplane than you are in a grocery store [or] a bar,” said Calio.

Travelers are advised to adhere to all local restrictions if they do decide to hit the road this Thanksgiving. Both New York and Washington, D.C., have moved away from mandating quarantines for visitors from high-risk areas in favor of strict testing requirements.

Related: State-by-state guide to coronavirus reopening

Featured image by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

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