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U.S. Sets New Record For Busiest Travel Day Since Pandemic Began

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This Thanksgiving has seen a spike in air travel unprecedented during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Sunday November 29 seeing the highest number of passenger screenings during a single day at US airports since the start of the outbreak.

The lead-up to the holiday had already seen air passenger numbers reach new pandemic-era highs, with four of the days prior to Thanksgiving each seeing over one million people passing through US airports. The previous daily record during the pandemic was surpassed on Sunday, however, with a total of 1.17 million Americans returning from the holidays by air, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

masked travelers waiting at airport

Overall, the TSA stated that 9.4 million people have travelled by plane during the Thanksgiving period, which began on Friday 20 November – highlighting the determination of some Americans to spend the holiday with their friends and family despite the risks posed by travel during the pandemic.

The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) had issued a last-minute plea to stop Americans traveling over the holiday by releasing new travel advice on November 19th that read “As cases continue to increase rapidly across the United States, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with.”

Despite the spike in air passenger numbers over the last week, travel was significantly lower than the previous year, with airport screenings down 59% on November 29 compared to the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2019. This suggests that that a large number of Americans did heed the CDC’s advice not to travel over the holiday.   

older couple wearing masks on plane

Nevertheless, the higher air passenger numbers seen over the past week will likely herald further growth in COVID-19 cases, which are already spiralling across the US. There have been over 1.1 million new cases in the country over the past week, with California, Illinois, Texas, Florida and Ohio seeing the largest numbers of new cases over the last seven days.

Public health officials have recommended that those who did choose to travel over the holiday period get themselves tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible.

White House Coronavirus Coordinator Dr Deborah Birx said on Sunday “If your family traveled, you have to assume that you are exposed and you became infected and you really need to get tested in the next week.”

covid-19 test

Surging COVID-19 Cases Could Undermine Airline Safety Efforts

The likely continued growth in COVID-19 cases across America following the Thanksgiving holiday has the potential to undermine the efforts of the aviation industry to persuade customers that air travel is safe during the pandemic.

Having been badly hit by travel restrictions introduced to control the spread of the virus, airlines have been at pains to highlight the introduction of new health protocols that make air travel just as safe as other routine activities, such as going to a restaurant. These include enhanced cleaning procedures, mandatory mask-wearing, and physical distancing, as well as the use of hospital-quality air filtration on planes which remove virus particles.

Many airlines have also been working on COVID-19 testing trials to open up international safe transport corridors. For example, Delta Airlines recently announced that it had developed a rigorous COVID-19 testing regime for passengers which would allow them to fly between Atlanta and Rome without the need to quarantine.

delta plane flying into the domincan republic

The likely continued surge in COVID-19 cases in the US over coming weeks risks undermining these efforts and could set back attempts to encourage customers to return to flying as a safe means of travel during the pandemic.

It remains to be seen whether air travel will pick up again over the Christmas period, with the CDC likely to maintain its recommendations against travel to be with friends and family.

In any case, it seems certain that air travel will not return to pre-pandemic levels for several months at least, until the pandemic is brought under control.

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Disclaimer: Current travel rules and restrictions can change without notice. The decision to travel is ultimately your responsibility. Contact your consulate and/or local authorities to confirm your nationality’s entry and/or any changes to travel requirements before traveling.  Travel Off Path does not endorse traveling against government advisories