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Next week could be busiest for airports in pandemic, but still not that busy

By Kristen Leigh Painter, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Business News

One of the greatest changes — and planning challenges — for airlines during COVID-19 is that people are waiting until the last minute to book flights.

The spread of the virus is always changing and people are waiting until closer to their departure date to make travel decisions. In September, for instance, half of all Sun Country's passengers booked their flights within the month.

"It continues to be difficult to predict as people are booking really close to travel — even for some of the long-haul, (international) stuff, which is unheard of," said Jessica Wheeler, a spokeswoman for Sun Country.

Within the past week, she said, the airline has seen an uptick in passengers canceling their Thanksgiving travels. Following the CDC's urgent request Thursday that Americans not travel, an A4A spokeswoman said the airline industry is now braced for many more flight cancellations and rebookings.

Airports, airlines and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are trying to prepare those who are flying next week for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

"We do expect (Thanksgiving) to be the busiest time we've seen since COVID hit," said Brian Ryks, chief executive of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), earlier this week at a MAC meeting. He said about 60% of the people flying for the Thanksgiving holiday have not flown since the virus hit last spring.

The air travel experience has changed over the last eight months, with TSA agents wearing personal protective equipment, acrylic barriers separating agents from passengers and much more frequent checkpoint cleanings, said TSA Administrator David Pekoske.

"The advice that we would give to travelers with respect to Thanksgiving week travel is to wear a mask," Pekoske said Thursday. "It is one of the best ways to prevent further spread of this disease and one of the best ways to protect themselves."

As of Thursday, the TSA said there are 557 active cases of its employees nationwide who have tested positive for the virus. Since last spring, 2,981 have tested positive, 2,424 have recovered and nine employees have died, including a longtime screener at MSP.

 

There have been 31 confirmed COVID-19 cases among TSA employees at MSP. The work date of the most recent confirmed case was Nov. 13.

"In general we're seeing an uptick in people exposed, but we don't know if it's from work or from outside of work," said Neal Gosman, a spokesman for Local 899 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA workers.

As Thanksgiving approaches, he said TSA workers "are a little bit more nervous, but we're coming in to work. We're doing our jobs." Many are taking advantage of the free COVID-19 saliva testing at the airport's main terminal.

Most major U.S. airports, including MSP, and the airlines require mask usage throughout the terminal and aboard the aircraft.

The absence of a federal standard has led to a patchwork of local restrictions, which industry officials say puts the onus on travelers to research what is expected of them at their destination.

"It's important to understand the rules and restrictions of where you are traveling," said Kevin Burke, chief executive for Airports Council International-North America. "Know your role in ensuring health and safety ... and wear your mask."

(Staff writers Janet Moore and Joe Carlson contributed to this report.)

(c)2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC