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U.S. air travel over Thanksgiving week set a pandemic record

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Over Thanksgiving, air travel in the U.S. soared to new heights. More than 2.3 million Americans flew for the holiday, setting a pandemic record that is close to 2019 numbers. This, of course, comes after many airlines had to scale down operations to cope with fewer passengers due to the pandemic.

Clint Henderson is senior news editor for The Points Guy and joins us now from Whitehall, Mont. Welcome.

CLINT HENDERSON: Thank you. It's so nice to be here.

SNELL: So what are you seeing as you look at airports and at airlines and, well, the passenger experience in general?

HENDERSON: So it's so different from last year, where we saw super depressed numbers still. Lots of people out there who've been avoiding travel until now are suddenly going for it. Flights are full, and we're seeing traffic levels at, you know, around 90% of what they were pre-pandemic, which is remarkable, especially considering there are fewer planes flying. There's fewer workers at the airport.

SNELL: Yeah. Speaking of that, we've heard about airlines having some serious meltdowns during the pandemic. You know, just last month, Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights. And then staffing is a whole other problem. Do you have any idea how airlines were able to meet this recent spike in demand?

HENDERSON: So I will tell you, the airlines were very lucky because they are running on a razor-thin margin right now with staffing. If there had been any kind of major weather issues this week, we could have seen dominoes quickly falling. So I think, you know, those giant meltdowns from American Airlines and Southwest just a couple weeks ago led the airlines to add some incredible incentives for workers, especially pilots and flight attendants, to stay in their jobs, not call out sick, to take those shifts.

But the Christmas holiday is going to be an even bigger test because if there's any kind of hiccup in weather, you start getting canceled flights and there's no seats available to pick up those passengers who are stranded. And so you see a massive meltdown.

SNELL: You mentioned full flights, which brings me to the question of COVID safety. You know, some airports, like Hartsfield Atlanta and LAX, handle huge passenger volumes. Others, like LaGuardia in New York City, are small and packed, which makes social distancing really hard. How are airports and airlines protecting people?

HENDERSON: Well, unfortunately, there's still a lot of hygiene theater out there. So, you know, a lot of travel companies are bragging about how they do electrostatic spraying or encourage people to wear their masks and to social distance. But, you know, it's easier said than done. And unfortunately, long gone are the days when airlines, like Delta, were blocking middle seats.

I think airline travel overall is generally pretty safe. I think those filters on the planes are great, and we have not heard of too many outbreaks from airline travel. The thing that worries me - and when I see places like Seattle packed with people - is moving through crowds at airports or even waiting on the jet bridge to board the plane. When you're packed in in an enclosed space, that freaks me out, and that's where you need to worry.

SNELL: So we're headed into December - another big rush of holiday travel. Do you have any advice for people when they're planning their - you know, their trips for the rest of the month?

HENDERSON: First of all, try to put distance between you and crowds. So obviously, that's not going to be possible at some chokepoints, like security screening. But if you can get something like TSA PreCheck or CLEAR, it is a lifesaver. Try to sit away from crowds. So if you can find a gate where there's no flights departing and you see there's only two or three people sitting there, that's where you want to sit waiting for your flight.

Don't crowd the gate. You know, you see a lot of first-class passengers who want to be the first to board crowding around the boarding area. Not a great idea during a pandemic. Wait to board if you can. If you're not trying to carry on eight pieces of luggage and need to be first to board, wait till the end.

SNELL: (Laughter) Eight pieces of luggage, a whole family, you know?

HENDERSON: Yeah. The other thing I would say is have a backup plan. So if you are flying from Dallas to Chicago on American Airlines, you better check to see if Delta has a flight. You better check to see if Southwest has a flight. Because if something goes sideways with American Airlines, you can call AA and say, hey, can you put me on that Delta flight? And a lot of times, they will, especially if there's an operational meltdown.

If you're a last-minute travel shopper, use those points you've been hoarding. If something goes wrong, you can cancel that trip and get those points back.

Also, use public transportation, if you can, to go to the airport. Something I've never heard before - Philadelphia, Palm Springs, their parking lots are full. So use an Uber, use a Lyft, use the train or the bus to get to the airport.

SNELL: That was Clint Henderson. He's the senior news editor for The Points Guy. Thanks so much for being here.

HENDERSON: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE NATIONALS' "TIME (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.