Hartsfield-Jackson prepares for holiday travel amid pandemic

11/23/2020 �  Atlanta, Georgia �Airport guests crowd the North Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta , Monday, November 23, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
11/23/2020 � Atlanta, Georgia �Airport guests crowd the North Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta , Monday, November 23, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Despite warnings that Americans should avoid travel and big Thanksgiving gatherings, the Atlanta airport and others in the hospitality industry are already seeing a bump in traffic and expect it to continue.

More than 1 million people passed through airport security checkpoints nationwide on Friday and again on Sunday, with the volume on Sunday reaching the highest level since mid-March.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines expects to handle about 2 million customers over a 10-day holiday period, according to CEO Ed Bastian.

The brightest spots in the troubled hospitality industry are hotels near beaches and the North Georgia mountains and resorts in remote areas, according to Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association executive director Jim Sprouse. “There are some pretty good pick-ups for the holiday weekend,” he said.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport expects its busiest day to be the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when officials anticipate 190,000 passengers. Still, the number of travelers is expected to be down about 40% or more compared with a year ago, while flight counts are down about 20%, according to airport general manager John Selden.

11/23/2020 �  Atlanta, Georgia �Airport passengers use the new South checkpoint security screening in the Domestic Terminal at the airport in Atlanta , Monday, November 23, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
11/23/2020 � Atlanta, Georgia �Airport passengers use the new South checkpoint security screening in the Domestic Terminal at the airport in Atlanta , Monday, November 23, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

With the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that travel may increase a person’s chance of getting and spreading the virus and is recommending against travel for Thanksgiving.

Both the CDC and travel industry leaders emphasize that those who do intend to travel should take precautions, including wearing masks and keeping a distance from others. Airlines require masks, and Delta has banned more than 500 passengers for refusing to wear them.

11/23/2020 �  Atlanta, Georgia �A woman and child, dressed in a disposable hazmat suit walk through the Domestic Terminal atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta , Monday, November 23, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
11/23/2020 � Atlanta, Georgia �A woman and child, dressed in a disposable hazmat suit walk through the Domestic Terminal atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta , Monday, November 23, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

In advance of the Thanksgiving travel rush, Hartsfield-Jackson opened a newly expanded South security checkpoint in its domestic terminal, with new machines to speed the security screening process and more space for travelers to queue up while maintaining distance from each other.

Officials say the South checkpoint, which is currently open to TSA PreCheck members, can reduce crowding and screen travelers nearly 20% faster. They say it is the only checkpoint in the nation fully equipped with automated smart lanes and CT (computed tomography) machines that screen carry-on bags, allowing travelers to keep their laptops, iPads and liquids in their bags, similar to PreCheck procedures.

The checkpoint expansion was planned before COVID-19 hit. This year, the pandemic has driven air travel volumes down drastically. But security lines have still extended through the terminal at times, with people spread farther apart in queues.

11/23/2020 �  Atlanta, Georgia �A TSA PreCheck retractable belt barrier is displayed at the new South checkpoint security screening in the Domestic Terminal at the airport in Atlanta , Monday, November 23, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
11/23/2020 � Atlanta, Georgia �A TSA PreCheck retractable belt barrier is displayed at the new South checkpoint security screening in the Domestic Terminal at the airport in Atlanta , Monday, November 23, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Even with the expected increase in holiday traffic, it’s a far cry from past years.

A survey commissioned by the American Hotel & Lodging Association showed that 72% of Americans said they were unlikely to travel for Thanksgiving. Hotel occupancy has been under 50%, and most hotels have less than half their regular staff working full time.

Many in the travel industry don’t expect to see a significant improvement until a vaccine is widely available.

The hundreds of rooms in large convention hotels are still mostly “sitting idle,” Sprouse said. The Atlanta Marriott Buckhead Hotel & Conference Center is taking the opportunity to close for some remodeling, he said. The Omni Atlanta Hotel, which is open, recently remodeled its lobby and completed a renovation.

This year has been “a tale of just trying to hang on,” said Sprouse. “We’re all sitting on pins and needles with the news about the vaccine.”

Three major drug companies recently have reported promising results in their push for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Even so, Delta’s Bastian said he thinks it’ll take a while for travel to see a boost because “a lot of consumers are going to take that news and say, ‘Well I’ve made it this far. I know where the goal line is. I know that I can get a vaccine that works hopefully by the spring.’”

In the short term, that “create an even greater level of choppiness” for travel demand over the next couple of months, Bastian said last week.

11/23/2020 —  Atlanta, Georgia —at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta , Monday, November 23, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
11/23/2020 — Atlanta, Georgia —at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta , Monday, November 23, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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