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Tri-State Area Airports Already Bustling With Thanksgiving Travelers; Experts Say Pack Your Patience

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- There are still a few days to go until Thanksgiving, but holiday travel is already picking up.

The number of people passing through U.S. airports over the weekend reached levels not seen since before the pandemic. But as CBS2's John Dias reported Monday, the new federal vaccine mandate may slow down some travelers.

With holiday greetings on the way, so is the gridlock. From LaGuardia Airport, where lines to get through TSA checkpoints were longer than usual, to John F. Kennedy International Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport, local transit hubs were already packed.

"It's the holidays. It happens," traveler Jon Case told CBS2.

"I just wanted to get here early. I'm taking an international flight," traveler Emanuel Hugo said.

AAA predicts Thanksgiving travel overall will rebound to near pre-pandemic levels, with more than 53 million Americans traveling. Experts say the eastbound lanes of the Long Island Expressway will see the most congestion in our area on Thanksgiving eve.

"From 2:30 to 6:30 Wednesday, the day before the holiday, we are anticipating a 480% increase in traffic volumes," said AAA Senior Manager of Public Affairs Robert Sinclair, Jr.

It comes as a new vaccine mandate for federal workers kicked in Monday, impacting TSA workers.

"If we are, they should be vaccinated," said traveler Miguel Ortiz.

In October, 60% of TSA workers got at least one shot. However, the agency now says 93% of its employees were in compliance with the deadline.

While the agency says it's prepared, others worry it will lead to staffing shortages and extended wait times through security.

Brooklyn resident Erica Morris flew into Kennedy Airport from Charlotte, saying flying home was a hassle.

"It was way too long," she said. "It didn't look like there were a whole lot of people working. Not enough people at least."

Suitcases packed and masks secured, the Rosenthal family was excited for their first big trip out of Newark since the pandemic began, CBS2's Jessica Layton reported.

"We're both double vaccinated and boosted and she's had two vaccines and we're ready to go," Nicole Rosenthal said.

All this comes as new COVID cases are up nearly 54% in the last month nationwide. Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin are among the hardest hit.

"With a daily average of now 92,000 cases, we've got to be careful," Dr. Anthony Fauci said on CBS Mornings. "That doesn't mean you can't enjoy the holidays. We can be with our families if you're vaccinated."

Dr. Fauci said it's a good idea to get a COVID test before celebrating indoors.

"It isn't a firm requirement, but I think if you want to go that extra step, particularly when you're in a region where there's a lot of infection," he said.

"I feel like I would feel safer if everybody was vaccinated or at least if everybody was tested," Rosenthal said.

In a letter signed by several Democrats, lawmakers asked President Joe Biden to require airline passengers to provide proof of full vaccination or a negative test to board a domestic flight, saying, "This is a necessary and long overdue step toward ensuring all Americans feel safe and confident while traveling and reduce the chances of yet another devastating winter surge."

Proof of vaccination is required for international travel, but Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Sunday it isn't necessary for flights within the U.S. because current safety protocols like masking work.

Several passengers Layton spoke with said requiring shots for all flights feels like overreaching.

"I feel like as long as people are taking the proper safety precautions, it's not necessary. I mean, everyone has the right to choose," one traveler said.

"It's up to whoever wants to do it, really," James Ransom said.

"I feel quite safe. Everyone wears their mask on board and sanitizing stations," Erin Coombs added.

The TSA anticipates the Sunday after Thanksgiving will likely see the highest numbers of air travelers as people return home.

AAA experts say air travel has almost completely recovered from its dramatic fall during the pandemic. It's up 80% over last year.

CBS2's Jessica Layton contributed to this report.

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