Fewer travelers expected over Thanksgiving as COVID numbers rise

July 22, 2020 Atlanta - Social distancing signs are  displayed as Delta customers wait on Concourse A at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



July 22, 2020 Atlanta - Social distancing signs are displayed as Delta customers wait on Concourse A at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Fewer Georgians are expected to take trips for Thanksgiving this year as the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep travelers at home.

During what is normally one of their biggest times of the year, airlines expect a slight increase in traffic over the last eight month but nothing close to past years.

Around the country, passenger counts for Thanksgiving are expected to be down by 47.5% compared with 2019, according to the auto club AAA. That would be the largest one-year decrease on record for the holiday.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport expects its busiest day to be the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when an estimated 63,000 passengers will pass through security checkpoints. That’s down from more than 93,000 passengers on the busiest day during the holiday period last year.

In normal years, more than 31 million passengers around the country take to the skies during the holiday period, according to the industry group Airlines for America.

Wednesday, Nov. 25, is also expected to be the busiest day on the roads, with I-85 South expected to have the most congestion and delays in the Atlanta area, AAA says.

Trips by automobile, which will account for 95% of all holiday travel, are expected to fall 4.3%, according to AAA. Other travel on buses, trains and cruise ships is forecast to decline by 76%.

Overall, 50.6 million Americans, including 1.6 million in Georgia, are expected to travel for Thanksgiving.

Compared to last year, that’s down nearly 10%, the largest one-year decline since 2008 during the Great Recession, AAA says. In Georgia, travel is expected to drop 6.1% for the holiday

The decline in travel comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been reporting more than 100,000 new COVID-19 cases a day.

Gabe Friedman had planned to fly from New York to Atlanta, then drive to visit his parents in Montgomery, Ala. Because both of his parents are at increased risk for severe illness if they contract COVID-19, he intended to come early, quarantine in a room above their garage for two weeks, then join them for Thanksgiving.

But, just this week, he found out he had been exposed to the virus. So, he canceled his trip.

“It was a pretty big gut punch,” said Friedman, who never misses going home for the holiday. “I wasn’t expecting to spend my first Thanksgiving of my life without my family in 2020, but here we are."

The CDC warns that travel increases the chances of getting and spreading COVID-19, Staying at home, the agency said, “is the best way to protect yourself and others.”

It suggests that families consider alternatives to gathering in person, such as hosting virtual Thanksgiving get-togethers for friends and family who live far away.

While the hope for vaccines has risen in recent days, “it’s going to take many months for distribution and widespread acceptance of those vaccines,” noted Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy for Airlines for America, which is pushing for another round of stimulus funding and new protocols to avoid quarantines.

Airlines also continue to encounter passengers who refuse to wear masks. Delta Air Lines said it has put nearly 550 passengers on its no-fly list for refusing to comply with its mask requirement on planes.

“Fortunately, that number represents a tiny fraction of our overall customers, the vast majority of whom follow our guidelines and appreciate the steps we are taking to keep them safe and healthy,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian in a memo on Thursday.

Nationally, more than 2 million passengers are forecast to fly on the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving. The least crowded day in airports will be Thanksgiving Day itself, when 1.2 million passengers will get on planes.

This holiday, it’s harder for airlines to predict how many passengers will actually board their flights because many airlines are being more flexible with reservations during the pandemic and allowing customers to make changes without paying a change fee. That means people may book trips for Thanksgiving and decide at the last minute to cancel.

Delta has extended its change fee waiver for all bookings through the end of the year.

Friedman, who had to cancel his flight to visit his parents for Thanksgiving, was able to get a credit for a future flight. But he thinks it will be a while before he’ll be able to use it to visit his family.

“It’s been incredibly stressful dealing with unemployment and dealing with all the chaos that the pandemic has caused. ... I was really looking forward to a break and spending time with my parents,” said Friedman, who was employed in the entertainment industry and has been out of work since the pandemic hit. “It’s been hard this week realizing that I’m not going to be able to go home.”

If you plan to fly:

  • Bring a mask. It’s required by major airlines and many other venues.
  • Check in for flights from home to reduce touchpoints at the airport.
  • Pack snacks and an empty water bottle. Some airport vendors are still closed. You can fill up your empty bottle at water refilling stations on the concourses after going through security.
  • Allow extra time to get to the airport and through the terminal. Some parking lots are closed, some parts of the airport are closed and there are new procedures due to COVID-19.
  • Hartsfield-Jackson has reopened its expanded South security checkpoint. Security lines may appear longer than normal due to social distancing.

Source: Airlines for America, AJC research