TSA reporting highest passenger numbers since the pandemic emptied skies in March

Nov 22, 2020

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On Thursday, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) pleaded with Americans to avoid travel this Thanksgiving holiday, citing the rapidly rising COVID-19 cases. But are people listening?

Early travel data says no. Nearly three million people just took to the skies on Thursday, Friday and Saturday combined, according to Transporation Security Administration (TSA) security checkpoint numbers.

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That’s still less than half of the number of passengers who flew in the days leading up to Thanksgiving in 2019. But nonetheless, it’s the strongest three days since the pandemic emptied out American skies back in March.

With COVID-19 cases climbing in every part of the country, the CDC last week issued a dramatic warning: Stay home for Thanksgiving.

On Thursday, Nov. 19 — just one week before Thanksgiving — the incident manager for the CDC’s COVID-19 response, Dr. Henry Walke, told reporters that “the CDC is recommending against travel during the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Walke continued to note that “we are all excited about the news regarding a vaccine, but it’s not here yet… when there are hard decisions to be made, we all must do our best to protect those around us.”

Related: CDC recommends staying home for the holidays — Here’s what to do if you may cancel your travel plans

Those “hard decisions” include shelving Thanksgiving travel plans, according to the CDC.

Though early travel data shows that people may not necessarily be listening to the guidelines, the airlines are painting a different picture.

Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines have all seen the rising COVID-19 case counts hit bookings and, at least for some, increase cancellations.

“We’ve seen a dampening of demand. It really is too soon to tell how deep and how long,” American president Robert Isom said at the Skift Aviation Forum on Nov. 19. His recommendation for Thanksgiving travelers was to follow CDC guidance — though he did not acknowledge the public health organization’s stay-at-home advice.

That same day in an investor update, United attributed a “deceleration in system bookings and an uptick in cancellations” directly to the spike in new COVID-19 cases.

Related: A complete list of airline coronavirus change and cancellation policies

Though bookings may indeed be slowing, perhaps the CDC’s warning was too late to affect Thanksgiving travel plans.

With many working from home and possibly wanting to build in a quarantine buffer before visiting at-risk family or friends, location agnostic and cautious travelers alike could potentially be leaving earlier for this year’s Thanksgiving holiday, avoiding the usual mid-week “rush”.

While every major U.S. airline allows travelers to change or cancel flights without fees, for many, it’s likely too late to change plans. With the holiday week already here, making new plans on such short notice is likely too burdensome for many.

Despite the CDC’s warning, Thanksgiving is shaping up to be the busiest travel week since March.

Additional reporting Ned Russell.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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