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Despite warnings from the CDC, Americans are traveling by air to see their loved ones and vacation. That's a good thing for the airlines. But the weeks ahead will be telling as to what the costs will be to the American people.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has screened nearly 5 million people since Friday when Americans began their Thanksgiving holiday traveling in earnest, the latest numbers made available on Wednesday show.

This was the busiest stretch for passenger traffic at U.S. airports since the pandemic began, the data show, despite foreboding warnings from U.S. health officials about the risks of travel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) last week issued guidance to avoid traveling due to an increase in coronavirus cases across the U.S. 

Globally, countries are seeing an uptick in the number of people contracting the coronavirus. As a result many countries in Europe and several states in the U.S. are enacting second wave lockdowns, at a time when airlines are struggling with the realities the pandemic has dealt them. 

While urging Americans to celebrate virtually or with members of their own household, the CDC said more than a million cases were reported in the U.S. in the seven days leading to the Thanksgiving guidance issued last Thursday. 

Yet despite the warning, the TSA reported screening 1.1 million individuals nationwide the very next day, only the second time since mid March when the U.S. saw its first outbreak of coronavirus, that  more than a million travelers have been recorded. Last year, at the same time, the TSA processed 2.5 million passengers.

The only time the number of passengers going through TSA reached more than 1 million since March 16, was on October 18 with a TSA total of 1.03 million down more than 50 percent from the same day in 2019 when 2.6 million passed through TSA, according to the agency’s data.

Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest travel holiday of the year in the U.S. with travelers flying or driving to their destinations to gather with their families usually begins on the day before Thanksgiving, but this year with  the flexibility of working remotely and virtual schools, trends show passengers leaving earlier and returning later.  

“Given the rate of cases and current capacity issues at hospitals, the airlines have been warning about slowing bookings. Southwest, Alaska and United stated that booking trends slowed recently and cancellation rates increased,” said Helane Becker, a senior research analyst at  Cowen Equity Research.  

In order to help curb the spread of coronavirus, the TSA has made an exception for passengers carrying hand sanitizers bigger than three ounces through checkpoints and is urging passengers to sign up for TSAPre to minimize contact. The CDC has also issued various guidelines for passengers who chose to travel, including when to get tested prior to traveling, when and if to quarantine and retesting after arriving at their destinations.   

Many airlines are now offering passenger the option to order their coronavirus test when purchasing their tickets and are hopeful things will turn around with the announcement of coronavirus vaccines.  

“We fully expect TSA throughput to be weak in the first half of December before improving during the Christmas holiday travel season. The concern we have is that the virus spreads dramatically during Thanksgiving and then cases surge during Christmas and then repeat during New Year’s. The continuation of the spread during holidays is a major concern and potentially has negative long-term effects on the recovery,” Becker said. 

The U.S. airline industry has been struggling to recover from the pandemic since last spring, with many airlines forced to ground planes in their fleets and furlough thousands of workers when U.S. Congress failed to pass a second Cares Act Payroll Support Program once it expired on September 30, 2020. 

According to a study by Airlines for America which represents several U.S. airlines, for the nine largest passenger airlines – after deducting the amount repayable to U.S. Treasury – PSP awards covered just 82 percent of payroll expenses, leaving them with a $3.7B shortfall for the applicable six-month period.

U.S. airlines are looking to the Thanksgiving travel to outperform the surrounding weeks with Sunday and Monday projected to be the busiest return days the Airlines for America study said. 

In total, Becker projects 10 million Americans will have traveled by air between November 19 and December 1.

In addition to the Thanksgiving travel warnings, the CDC added several countries, including several popular Caribbean destinations still accepting U.S. passengers to their Level 4: Covid-19 Very High travel warnings urging all travelers to avoid travel to countries on the list.  

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Tags: airlines, airports, cdc, coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, thanksgiving, tsa

Photo Credit: Crowds like these at U.S. airports were not uncommon in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, despite a resurgent cases of coronavirus. SolStock / Getty

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