Thanksgiving week has always been the busiest travel season of the year, and experts expect the number of people flying and hitting the road will be close to what it was before the pandemic.
With travel restrictions gone and COVID-19 deaths substantially down across the United States, officials are seeing a significant rise in the number of travelers this week. Although the surge doesn’t quite surpass the number of travelers that were seen in 2019 — before the pandemic — more people are traveling to see loved ones this holiday.
More than 54.6 million people are expected to get on a plane or in a car, or ride public transportation during Thanksgiving week, according to the American Automobile Assn.
“We expect to be busier this year than last year at this time, and probably very close to pre-pandemic levels,” said David Pekoske, administrator of Transportation Security Administration, said in a statement.
The TSA has already seen more people traveling this year during holiday weekends than in recent years, when the COVID-19 pandemic had health officials recommending people forgo nonessential travel.
TSA officials said that the number of travelers this year could reach pre-2020 levels, and that as many as 2.5 million passengers might be screened at airports nationwide Wednesday. On Sunday, travelers could possibly surpass that number.
That’s not too far from the record-setting 2.9 million people who went through TSA checkpoints the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019.
Air travel and even family gatherings this year will also look much different than they have in recent years, when stay-at-home and mask orders, and a devastating number of COVID-19 deaths, prompted many people to shun travel to celebrate the holiday.
This week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor, said people should take into consideration the elderly and immunocompromised when gathering this holiday and suggested taking a COVID-19 test before getting together to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.
That was a significant change from Thanksgiving in 2020, when Fauci urged people to stay home, or keep gatherings small, and warned that getting together with people outside their household would put family members at risk.
But with COVID-19 numbers declining, more people are expected to gather for the holiday.
For Thanksgiving week, Tuesday is set to be the busiest day at airports across the country, with 48,082 passengers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Wednesday would also be filled with last-minute travelers, with an expected 45,721 passengers.
The travel rush should taper off on Thanksgiving and the following two days. On Saturday, about 39,443 people are expected to travel by air. By Sunday, however, the FAA expects the crowds to return, with 46,790 passengers flying that day.
The surge of travelers this weekend is also prompting airports and TSA to warn people to get to airports early, considering the possibility of delays from traffic or long security lines.
Los Angeles International Airport is expecting more than 200,000 passengers a day until Nov. 28, according to a news release from Los Angeles World Airports.
It won’t just be in the terminals that travelers at LAX could see delays or long lines. As many as 97,000 daily vehicles will be trying to pick up or drop off someone at the terminals, airport officials said.
That surge is still less than that seen in 2019, before the pandemic, but airport officials note it is 20,000 more people a day than during the same period last year.
On Sunday, LAX officials are expecting as many as 215,000 travelers.
“LAX is ready to welcome guests for what is expected to be the busiest holiday travel period since 2019, and we are asking travelers to do their part to create a stress-free experience by planning their parking, arriving extra early and taking time to relax at the gate instead of circling with traffic,” Justin Erbacci, chief executive of Los Angeles World Airports, said in a statement.
Travelers are usually told to arrive two hours before their boarding time for domestic flights and three hours before international flights, but officials said people might want to allow a bit more time this week. That would be especially true between the hours of 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., and midafternoon, which is considered the busiest time.
According to the Automobile Club, as many as 4.5 million people in Southern California will travel this week, including 3.9 million who will be driving out to their destination.
That could mean a return to the one holiday tradition residents won’t be looking forward to: traffic.