Pre-Christmas air travel surpassed 1 million daily passengers nationwide for three consecutive days this weekend — breaking the record for most weekend travelers of the pandemic and outpacing Thanksgiving numbers that assumed that title and worried health experts last month. The 3.2 million passengers screened Friday, Saturday and Sunday mark the only time during the pandemic that more than 1 million air travelers were seen three days in a row.
The influx in air travel undercuts health officials’ guidance for Americans to stay home this holiday season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance earlier this month that discouraged travel and urged those who need to travel to acquire coronavirus tests before and after their journey.
The next two contenders for busiest travel weekends nationally were those before and after Thanksgiving, Transportation Security Administration spokesperson Daniel Velez said in an email. Pre-Thanksgiving weekend saw 3,052,139 travelers, with the following weekend logging 2,961,120.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has not seen such recent records, said Port of Seattle spokesperson Perry Cooper.
“Our largest day was Labor Day, but we haven’t exceeded it yet during the holidays,” he said via email. “The latest TSA projections show there could be a large day that would get close to the Labor Day number on either Wednesday, Sunday or Monday coming up.”
Cooper said the airport — which the port now prefers to abbreviate as SEA rather than Sea-Tac — is often not in sync with national travel peaks. “Our busiest weeks so far have been the week of October 11 and 18,” with about 19,600 departing passengers, he said.
On Saturday, TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein noted the upswing in passenger volume on Twitter and shared images of TSA agents sanitizing security checkpoints, which have new touchless procedures and glass barriers between travelers and staff.
Farbstein also reminded passengers that they are permitted to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer through security — more than the standard three-ounce limit that applies to other liquids — during the pandemic.
“Until further notice, passengers may bring one container of hand sanitizer up to 12oz in carry-on bags,” the TSA said in a tweet. “Expect containers to be screened separately, which may add time to the checkpoint screening experience.”
While the amount of people flying every day is still consistently less than half of the same numbers seen last year before the pandemic began, the influx marks a steady increase in the frequency of days in which travel volumes surpass 1 million daily passengers. Since March, there have been a total of eight days that saw more than 1 million screenings: One occurred in October, four in November, and three have been recorded so far this month.
“Travel can increase your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19. Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19,” the CDC said in updated guidance on Dec. 2. For those who do plan to travel, the agency recommends getting tested one to three days before the trip and three to five days afterward. It also says to “reduce non-essential activities for a full 7 days after travel, even if your test is negative.”
Those unable to acquire a test, the guidance says, should “reduce non-essential activities for 10 days after travel.”
Christmas travel numbers are likely to plummet in some other countries, like England, where officials have imposed lockdowns and banned holiday gatherings because of a fast-spreading strain of the coronavirus. Canada and some nations in Europe have moved to ban travel from England through Christmas.
While the strain has not yet been reported in the United States, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, on Monday called for the country to follow suit and ban travel from the United Kingdom.
“Right now, this variant in the U.K. is getting on a plane and flying to JFK,” Cuomo said on a conference call with reporters. “We have about six flights a day coming in [to JFK airport] from the U.K. and we have done absolutely nothing.”