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More Americans flew on Sunday than any other day since March 16

Millions traveling for Thanksgiving despite warnings
Millions stick to Thanksgiving travel plans despite urgent COVID-19 warnings 03:59

The number of Americans traveling by air is hitting levels not seen since the spring, even as health officials urge people to stay home for the holidays to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

More than 1 million Americans boarded flights on Sunday, the most for a single day since mid-March, according to figures from the Transportation Security Administration. Over the three-day period from Friday to Sunday, more than 3 million travelers were screened, making it the busiest travel weekend since the weekend of March 14-16.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week urged Americans to avoid holiday travel that could put them in contact with strangers, including traveling by plane, train or bus.

Despite the travel pickup, passenger counts are still down by more than half compared with last year, when 7 million Americans shuttled through U.S. airports on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Many Americans may be more inclined to take flights during the holidays because they've heard that travel volumes have dropped, and assume — incorrectly — that airports will be less crowded, said William McGee, aviation advocate for Consumer Reports.  

"Most people have heard that air traffic has dropped off since last year … so people are thinking flights will be 25% full. But that's not the case," he said.

Indeed, airlines have responded to falling demand by cutting the number of flights and laying off workers. Many have quietly reversed pledges made earlier this year to keep some seats empty. So while the volume of flights may be lower, each individual flight may be full.

"The idea that, because traffic is a fraction of last year that you'll be on an empty plane, it's just not true. With the holidays, the chances are that you'll be on a full flight," McGee said.

In the absence of federal rules, airlines set their own policies for wearing masks, social distancing and sanitizing flights. "When an airline announces a policy, they can change it a day later, and in some cases they have," he added. 

For instance, Southwest Airlines said last month it would unblock middle seats on flights starting in December, citing a study that concluded the odds of contracting the coronavirus in flight were "similar to the odds of being struck by lightning." Alaska Airlines is keeping middle seats empty through the end of the year, but will book them starting January 6.

However, congregating with other travelers in airports before and after a flight still poses infection risks, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci spoke with "Face the Nation" on Sunday about concerns that the current travel surge could lead to an even greater spike in coronavirus cases during the winter holidays.

"One of the things we're really concerned about is that, as we get into this Thanksgiving season, you're not going to see an increase until weeks later. Things lag. So what you don't want to see is another spike in cases as we get colder and colder into December," Fauci said. "We can really be in a very difficult situation.

Health experts urge Americans to stay home this Thanksgiving 02:23

The U.S. Travel Association is asking travelers who choose to fly to stay masked and practice good hygiene. "Our businesses are pleased to see people are traveling, but we want to make sure they're doing it in a safe and healthy way," said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and travel at the trade group.

While the uptick in weekend flights may point to a travel industry rebound, Barnes said the sector remains depressed.

"It's absolutely great that we have one weekend of a rebound, but there needs to be a consistent week-over-week uptick," she said. "Right now we're looking at a 2024-25 horizon for recovery."

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