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Thanksgiving Airline Travel Down 50 Percent, Which Could Spell Trouble For Airlines

CHICAGO (CBS) -- AAA projects the largest dip in overall holiday travel since the 2008 recession.

CBS 2's Marissa Parra has been tracking Thanksgiving travel since last week. As she reported Sunday, the possible impact could be rough for airlines.

AAA said nearly 48 million Americans are expected to have traveled by car for Thanksgiving. That is almost a 5 percent dip from years prior, with holiday travel overall expected to be 10 percent less.

And airlines have said if they don't get federal help, they are going to be bracing for impact.

To be clear, people were advised they should not be traveling this Thanksgiving at all. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people should not travel to family gatherings, and state and local public health officials – as well as Gov. JB Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot – repeatedly said it was in everyone's best interest to stay home.

Thus, the Thanksgiving turnout that did materialize at Chicago airports was more than health officials would have liked. But it was less than airlines were hoping for.

In pre-COVID days, airport lines were long both outside and in the terminal. In 2020, not so much.

This time, AAA projects that driving instead will account for 95 percent of all holiday travel, which travel expert Joe Schwieterman said could have big consequences.

"Airlines banked on a pretty big recovery this fall and we're seeing a tepid recovery," said Schwieterman, a Professor in DePaul University the School for Public Service, Department of Public Policy, and Sustainable Urban Development program.

It is no secret that airlines are hurting. FlightAware data show an abysmal year for travel – a year that started out strong before coronavirus and for which there were hopes that it would ultimately end strong.

But now, with a second surge of coronavirus cases nationwide and health officials urging Americans to stay home, aviation unions are begging for federal help after that second stimulus package for airlines fell through.

"In flight crews, a lot of flight attendants and pilots gave pay givebacks," Schwieterman said. "There've been some negotiations to prevent layoffs, but that's all predicated on demand coming back."

In-flight crews have been holding their breaths for almost nine months.

"When losing health care, what am I supposed to do?" said Jordy Comeaux, a United Airlines flight attendant.

CBS 2 interviewed Comeaux this fall, days before he became one of 32,000 workers furloughed between United and American airlines.

Schwieterman fears it might be another couple of years until consumer demand is back where it was pre-pandemic. But there is hope on the horizon.

"The good news is the vaccine is generating some excitement," Schwieterman said. "We'll have to wait and see how long it takes to boost consumer confidence."

According to the latest figure from the Transportation Security Administration, its officers screened 964,630 people around the country on Saturday alone. That is about 20,000 fewer than were screened one week earlier on Saturday, Nov. 21, when 984,369 people were screened.

One year ago, 2,648,268 Thanksgiving travelers were screened.

CBS News estimates more than 90,000 airline workers have lost their jobs through furloughs, through layoffs, or by taking exit packages. Nearly 84,000 have taken unpaid leave.

Still, health officials believe the amount of travel that happened this Thanksgiving weekend is too much regardless. The officials believe even the low numbers of travelers who went to family gatherings could trigger more coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

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