December 01, 2021

Thanksgiving Travelers Packed Planes to New Pandemic Heights. Will Rebound Continue Amid Omicron Variant?

Travelers returning home from Thanksgiving getaways packed airports to levels not seen since before the pandemic but fell short of 2019 levels, as expected.

The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 2,451,300 people Sunday as passengers who departed on a variety of days leading up to the holiday returned home en masse.

That is more than double the nearly 1.2 million people who passed through checkpoints on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year but nearly half a million passengers shy of the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, which remains the busiest day in TSA's history with 2,882,915 people screened.

For the 10-day Thanksgiving travel rush that began Nov. 19, the TSA said it screened nearly 20.9 million passengers. That compares with 9.5 million a year ago and a record 23.5 million in 2019.

TSA checkpoint travel numbers
Versus prior year, same weekday
TSA Checkpoint Travel Numbers

The good news for travelers: Early forecasts for inclement weather that could seriously disrupt flights didn't materialize, and airline operations were on track after a series of meltdowns during the summer and into the fall and questions about whether vaccine mandates for employees might add to the trouble.

The big question now is whether the travel momentum carry into the year-end holiday travel season and 2022. Airlines have said bookings are strong, but that was before reports of a potentially troubling new coronavirus variant that threatens to dampen travel demand. The World Health Organization said Monday that the variant is likely to quickly spread around the globe, possibly with "severe consequences."

"There could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place," WHO said in a technical brief. "The overall global risk related to the (omicron variant) is assessed as very high."

The variant, discovered in South Africa just before Thanksgiving and dubbed omicron on Friday, already has brought travel restrictions.

Beginning Monday foreign travelers from South Africa and seven other African countries will be banned from entering the United States. The ban comes just a few weeks after the U.S. lifted a pandemic-long travel ban, reopening to fully vaccinated foreign nationals from more than two dozen countries.

The ban does not include U.S. citizens, but on Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Department issued do-not-travel alerts for the eight African countries covered by the ban.

In England, the new restrictions include a mandatory PCR test on the second day after arrival.

Copyright 2021 Gannett. All rights reserved. From By Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY.

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