DALLAS — Determined to reclaim Thanksgiving traditions interrupted by last year’s pandemic, millions of Americans will load up their cars or board planes to reunite with friends and family.
The number of air travelers this week is expected to approach or even exceed pre-pandemic levels, and auto club AAA predicts 48.3 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home during the holiday season, an increase of nearly 4 million from last year. despite significantly higher petrol prices.
Many feel encouraged by the fact that nearly 200 million Americans are now fully vaccinated. But it also means brushing aside concerns about a virus resurgence at a time when the US now averages nearly 100,000 new infections per day and hospitals in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona are seeing alarming increases in patient numbers.
The seven-day daily average of new reported cases is up nearly 30 percent in the past two weeks through Tuesday, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say unvaccinated people should not travel, although it’s unclear whether that recommendation will have any effect.
More than 2.2 million travelers poured through airport checkpoints last Friday, the busiest day since the pandemic devastated travel early last year. From Friday through Monday, the number of people flying into the US was more than double the same days last year and just 8 percent lower than the same days in 2019.
At Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Peter Titus, an engineer at Princeton University’s plasma physics lab, was on his way to visit his family in Canada with his wife and adult son. He was carrying a folder with prints of their vaccination cards and COVID-19 negative tests needed to fly into Canada.
His son, Christian Titus, who works as a voice actor, says he has spent much of the pandemic indoors but is willing to risk flying in a crowded plane because he misses being with his family. He was given a booster injection to increase his protection.
“My mental health continues to improve by being with my family during these times,” he said. ‘Yes, it is dangerous. But you love these people, so you do what you can to stay safe with them.”
Meka Starling and her husband were delighted that many members of their extended family would meet their 2-year-old son Kaiden for the first time at a large Thanksgiving gathering in Linden, New Jersey.
“We’ve put pictures on Facebook, so a lot of them have seen pictures of him, but to actually touch him and talk to him, I’m excited about it,” said Starling, 44, of West Point, Mississippi, who will meet with nearly 40 family members, all of whom agreed to be vaccinated.
For their part, airlines hope to avoid a repeat of the massive flight cancellations — more than 2,300 each — that dogged Southwest and American Airlines at various times last month.
The breakdowns started with bad weather in part of the country and spiraled out of control. In the past, airlines had enough pilots, flight attendants and other personnel to recover from many disruptions in a day or two. However, they are now finding it harder to come back, having been stretched after forcing thousands of employees to quit when travel collapsed last year.
American, Southwest, Delta and United have all hired people lately, giving airlines and industry observers hope that flights will stay on schedule this week.
“The airlines are prepared for the holiday season,” said Helane Becker, aviation analyst for financial services firm Cowen. “They’ve scaled down the number of flights, the industry has enough pilots, they’re putting more flight attendants in their… [training] academies, and they pay flight attendants a premium — what I’m going to call a dangerous wage — to encourage people not to cancel their jobs.”
The airlines currently have little margin for error. American expects to fill more than 90 percent of its seats with paying customers on Tuesday. That’s a look back at vacation travel before the pandemic.
“There’s not a lot of room to put people on another flight if something goes wrong,” said Dennis Tajer, an airline pilot and spokesperson for the American pilots’ union.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration has dismissed concerns that there are staff shortages at airport checkpoints this week due to the requirement for federal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. White House officials said 93 percent of TSA employees are complying with the mandate and do not expect any disruptions.
For leisure travelers going by car, the biggest pain will likely be higher prices at the pump. The national average for gasoline on Tuesday was $3.40 a gallon, according to AAA, more than 60 percent higher than last Thanksgiving.
Those prices could be one of many factors that will discourage some vacationers. In a survey conducted by Gasbuddy, which tracks pump prices, about half of app users who responded said high prices will affect their travel plans this week. About two in five say they travel less often for various reasons.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday ordered 50 million barrels of oil from the US strategic reserve to cut energy costs, in partnership with other major energy consuming countries. The US action is focused on global energy markets, as well as helping Americans cope with higher inflation and rising prices in the run-up to Thanksgiving and winter holidays.
The price at the pump came as a shock to Tye Reedy, who flew to California from Tennessee and borrowed his friend’s truck for some sightseeing. Gasoline was $5 a gallon at the Chevron in Alameda, and it cost $100 to fill the truck.
“We didn’t travel last year due to COVID restrictions and stuff,” said Reedy. “But you know, we’re confident… with the vaccine and where it is now with the virus that, you know, we felt comfortable traveling.”
Story by David Koenig. Associated Press writers Ted Shaffrey, Terry Chea and Seth Wenig contributed to this report.