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Holiday travel in Louisiana has increased since 2020, but is it back to pre-pandemic levels?

Passengers collect their bags at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Nov. 19, 2021.
Paul Braun
Passengers collect their bags at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Nov. 19, 2021.

As coronavirus cases fall and vaccination rates rise, transportation officials say more people are hitting the roads and taking to the skies to visit family and friends ahead of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

AAA forecasts 53.4 million people will travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, up 13% from last year and within 5% of 2019 levels.

Officials at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport said they expect to see 58% more holiday travelers in the coming week than in 2020, but still expect passenger volume to fall short of pre-pandemic levels.

“It’ll definitely be higher than a normal weekend and higher than last year — getting close to pre-COVID, but not quite there yet,” said Erin Burns, MSY’s director of communications.

In a press release Friday, airport officials said they expect passenger volume between Tuesday, Nov. 23 and Monday, Nov. 29 to be 14% lower than the same week in 2019. They expect Sunday, Nov. 28 to be the busiest travel day of the coming week, with as many as 44,000 passengers moving through the airport.

The Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport served 59,798 passengers in September — nearly double the passenger volume during the same month last year and approximately 90% of the number served in September 2019.

Jim Caldwell, marketing and air service development manager for Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, said he expects that trend to continue through the holiday season.

“We definitely will have significantly higher bookings over the holidays this year than last year — I think maybe even double — but the numbers will still probably be closer to the 85% to 90% range compared to 2019,” Caldwell said.

The increase in air travel is a much-needed boost for an airline industry battered for nearly two years by travel restrictions and consumer safety concerns because of the pandemic.

But holiday travel forecasts from AAA show that the vast majority of those travelers, an estimated 48.3 million, still plan to drive to their destinations, despite the increasing cost of the price of gas. At $3.42, the national average price for a gallon of gas is nearly double what it was one year ago.

Caldwell said air travel’s slower bounce back is not necessarily due to reduced demand, but rather because of the reduced availability of flights.

For example, the three carriers that serve BTR continue to send smaller regional jets to the airport due to a nationwide shortage of flight crews that have forced them to redirect the few available higher-capacity planes to larger markets.

Caldwell said early booking reports from American, Delta and United Airlines show that most of the flights into Baton Rouge through the holiday season will be at or near capacity; they will just be on smaller jets serviced by regional carriers partnered with the major airlines. Caldwell said the higher “load-ratios” of the holiday flights could encourage the airlines to send higher-capacity aircraft to Baton Rouge in the near future.

Caldwell said the increased traffic for the airport is a welcome change of pace after the lull in air travel since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.

“It’s just a lot more exciting when you see people in the terminal,” Caldwell said. “It’s certainly good for vendors, the restaurants, gift shops and car rentals. Even though we’re a city department, we have to be self-sufficient and generate our own funds for operations, so we really need the passengers.”

With the influx of returning fliers and widespread staffing issues, Burns urges people flying out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to plan to arrive at least two hours before their flight to ensure that they have enough time to clear TSA checkpoints and reach their gate.

“With the pandemic recovery and Hurricane Ida recovery causing staffing issues that people are seeing across industries, you know that’s going to cause some strain,” Burns said.

In addition to arriving early, Burns advised fliers to schedule their trip outside of peak travel times — for example the two days immediately before and after Thanksgiving Day — to avoid long lines.

While much of the focus around holiday travel this year has been on reuniting families, officials from the New Orleans hospitality industry expect the improved COVID-19 outlook will encourage more tourists and business travelers to return to the city.

“The New Orleans tourism industry is feeling like it's finally starting to turn a corner, and that’s going to be really good for business in the holidays of 2021,” said Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications for New Orleans and Company, the city’s publicly-funded tourism agency.

Schulz said it’s unlikely that New Orleans will bounce back to pre-pandemic tourism levels — 2019 was a record year for New Orleans tourism with more than 19 million visitors, and the city spent much of 2021 battling the COVID-19 and recovering from Hurricane Ida. Through October, occupancy in Downtown and French Quarter hotels was 40% lower than the same period in 2019.

“It’s been a tough calendar year, and 2020 was also a very difficult year with the pandemic. Now we’re in a good place,” Schulz said, adding that she hopes the Thanksgiving weekend, and the return of the Bayou Classic to the Caesars Superdome on Saturday, Nov. 27, can propel the city’s hospitality industry into a busy new year.

New Orleans will start 2022 by hosting the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year’s day, then continue into the first in-person Carnival season since 2020, followed by the NCAA Men’s Final Four in early April. She added that the resumption of international travel earlier this month paves the way for the return of the business travelers and conventions that boost the tourism economy year-round.

Schulz urged potential visitors to “do their homework” and educate themselves on New Orleans’ COVID-19 policies before scheduling a trip. The city of New Orleans has lifted its mask mandate for vaccinated individuals, but still requires people to provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test to enter most indoor settings.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have stressed safety for everyone, not just our visitors, but for all of us who live and work here in New Orleans,” Schulz said.

Last week, Louisiana joined the growing list of states to recommend COVID-19 booster shots to all residents before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the same recommendation nationwide.

Dr. Joseph Kanter, state health officer with the Louisiana Department of Health, said the booster shots offer Louisiana families “maximum protection as they celebrate.”

“While our COVID-19 trends are much better than they have been, the virus remains active statewide, and that means there is still risk involved when people gather together,” Kanter said. ”We experienced our third surge after last year’s holiday season, and we are seeing cases surging across the country as we head into Thanksgiving.”

Kanter and public health experts like him urge people to consider their COVID-19 risk, and the risk of their guests, when planning their holiday celebrations. While vaccines are available for most people, children under the age of 5 still cannot receive the shots, and those ages 5 to 11 may not have had enough time to receive both doses of one of the two-shot vaccines made available to them in October.

Older, unvaccinated guests are at the greatest risk, and nearly 40% of Louisianans ages 18 and older haven’t completed their vaccine series.

Kanter urged unvaccinated people with big gatherings planned to get their shots now. A person is not considered to be fully vaccinated until two weeks after they receive their final dose of any of the vaccines, but a single shot does offer some protection.

People without full protection from the vaccine should incorporate other safety measures — like eating outdoors and masking indoors — into their Thanksgiving plans.

If some guests are unvaccinated, the safest way to have the holiday meal is outside where the virus is less likely to spread among guests, health officials said.

Last year’s holiday celebrations fueled a third deadly surge of coronavirus cases in Louisiana, despite state and federal health officials’ repeated pleas for people to limit contact with individuals outside their household.

The number of Louisianans testing positive for and hospitalized with COVID-19 ticked up right after Halloween and did not fall until early January. The number of patients hospitalized during the third surge peaked on Jan. 7 at what was then an all-time high of 2,069. That record would stand until Aug. 2 during the state’s fourth surge.

But after the delta variant tore through the state this summer, the state has some of the lowest coronavirus transmission rates in the country. Louisiana trails only Florida in the fewest number of cases per capita reported over the last seven days.

Health experts believe the current low transmission rates across the South are because the delta variant ran out of unvaccinated and uninfected people to pass through. But those experts warn that any immunity gained from contracting and surviving the delta variant would not extend to any new variants that emerge.

Still, Gov. John Bel Edwards said anyone who has not yet received the vaccine should do so before the holiday season to get the best possible protection against another surge.

“We want everyone to spend time with their family and friends and do so as safely as possible,” Edwards said. “The vaccines are widely available, safe and offer the most effective protection we have against the virus.”

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.