Airport crowds expected as Thanksgiving travel rebounds

Travelers line up at check-in counters at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on Nov. 17, 2021. Credit: John Spink / AJC

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Travelers line up at check-in counters at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on Nov. 17, 2021. Credit: John Spink / AJC

Last year, almost as many Americans traveled by car during Thanksgiving as before the pandemic.

This year, they also are taking to the skies.

Next week’s holiday rush will be a major test for airlines, which have struggled with staffing shortages and occasional operational meltdowns in recent months as traffic rebounded after plunging last year.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport expects 2.22 million passengers for the Thanksgiving travel period between this Saturday and the Monday after the holiday.

That’s still below the 2.6 million people who passed through the terminals in Thanksgiving 2019, but up sharply from about 1.6 million last year.

“We’re bouncing back,” said Hartsfield-Jackson senior deputy general manager Michael Smith, adding airport officials expect “a very busy” Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Wednesday before the holiday and the Sunday afterward are expected to be the busiest days of the Thanksgiving period.

After staying home during the lockdowns early in the pandemic, many people ventured out last Thanksgiving to visit families in other cities, but they went by car and avoided planes.

AAA predicts 1.6 million people in Georgia will travel this Thanksgiving, including more than 108,000 taking flights. That will bring total traveler counts to just 3% shy of 2019, with airline passenger counts within 13% of 2019. Domestic leisure air travel has almost completely recovered, according to travel experts, while business and international travel lag.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines expects to handle as many as 5.6 million passengers across its flight network from this Friday through the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. That is more than double the 2.2 million last year but still short of the 6.3 million for Thanksgiving 2019.

Delta has worked for months to ramp up its workforce for the return of travelers, but acknowledged that it fell short in some areas earlier this year, leading to hours-long waits on customer service phone lines and headquarters employees called on to help staff and clean airport lounges.

Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson, has had bouts of mass cancellations amid staffing shortages and other issues. Spirit Airlines also had hundreds of flight cancellations that frustrated passengers over several days in August.

Delta says it has been working to meet the increased demand this year by hiring thousands of workers, including flight attendants and those in reservations, airport customer service, wheelchair staffing and cleaning.

Nationally, AAA expects 53.4 million travelers, including 4.2 million traveling by air.

Travel by car declined by 11% last Thanksgiving and is expected to be just 3% short of 2019 levels nationally this year. Air travel fell by 50% last Thanksgiving, but the Fourth of July holiday this year brought near-record travel volumes.

The Transportation Security Administration is adding more staff to help with crowds. The agency, with starting pay of $17.39 an hour here, has been able to continually hire staff, said Robert Spinden, TSA’s federal security director in Atlanta.

A job listing on says the agency has “MANY vacancies” in Atlanta. The agency also is under a Nov. 22 deadline for federal employees to be vaccinated. Spinden said he does “not anticipate that the vaccination mandate will have any impact on our ability to staff for Thanksgiving.”

Still, travelers should plan for crowds and congestion on roads and in airports, longer lines and waits to get through TSA security checkpoints, according to AAA vice president of travel Debbie Haas.

In spite of the hike in traffic and overall U.S inflation hitting a three-decade high, average lowest air fares are still 27.3% below last year, according to AAA. But mid-range hotel room rates have increased about 39% from last year, and car rental prices remain high, at $98 a day on average, amid a shortage of vehicles.

One other trend: unruly passenger incidents, which spiked earlier in the pandemic after the rollout of a mask mandate.

Such incidents are still rare, but “anxiety is high” on planes, said Association of Flight Attendants union president Sara Nelson during a Washington Post Live event this week. That’s in part because by boarding a flight, “people are doing something they haven’t done for a long time,” she said.