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Pack your patience: Holiday travel could reach pre-pandemic levels

Thanksgiving is historically the busiest time of the year for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and despite the lingering effects of the pandemic, airport officials expect that to be the case again next week.

“Our passenger numbers have been steadily going up since the start of the pandemic,” Sky Harbor public information officer Greg Roybal said. “We’re expecting plenty of travelers on Thanksgiving, and hopefully that means plenty of traffic for Christmastime, too.”

Airport statistics show that the highest number of travelers to pass through Sky Harbor – more than 46 million – occurred in 2019. But in 2020, that number was less than half – about 22 million passengers. In November 2020, 50% fewer passengers traveled into and out of Sky Harbor.

Roybal said 2021 has begun to show promises of a busier holiday season, and Sky Harbor could reach pre-pandemic travel numbers once again.

“We hope it’s this busy because we like having passengers, we like having traffic,” he said. “It’s beautiful that people want to fly, and that’s a good thing and what we’re here to do.”

AAA predicts that 53.4 million Americans will travel for Thanksgiving, which is within 5% of pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

Even with gasoline prices topping $4 a gallon in some parts of metro Phoenix, 90% of people still prefer driving as their mode of holiday travel, AAA said. The travel group predicts 48.3 million Americans will hit the road to reach their Thanksgiving destinations.

Air travel is the second most- preferred method of travel, according to AAA’s prediction data, with 4.2 million people expected to fly to their travel destinations this year.

“This Thanksgiving, travel will look a lot different than last year,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said in a statement. “Now that the borders are open and new health and safety guidelines are in place, travel is once again high on the list for Americans who are ready to reunite with their loved ones for the holiday.”

Historically, said Brett Keller, CEO of the travel company Priceline, such challenges as high gas prices have caused people to travel less, but that isn’t the case this year.

“People want to travel; they want to see family and friends and spend time with them this year,” Keller said during a Washington Post Live event Monday. “Consumers around the country have a lot of time off that has not been used, and they are using that time off as they approach the end of the year.”

With travel coming back, there’s added pressure on flight crews charged with enforcing pandemic safety protocols. A federal order requires all air passengers to wear face masks on airplanes and in airports, effective at least through Jan. 18.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the past few years have been incredibly hard on flight attendants because, even if there wasn’t any work to go to, they still had to show up in case there was. This year, she said, flight attendants have seen more incidences of disruptive and violent passengers than normal.

“This is a regular occurrence now, and that has really chipped away at people,” Nelson said. “It’s also the constant bickering and fighting back and questioning whether or not people should follow the rules … so this is a really combative mode and a hostile environment that people are going to work in.”

Nelson asks that passengers “pack their patience” when traveling this holiday season.

Travel tips for holiday passengers

Roybal and Nelson offered some tips and reminders for travelers to make their trips less stressful:

  • Reserve overnight parking spots in advance.
  • Check flight status before leaving for the airport.
  • Arrive with plenty of time before scheduled boarding to check bags, print boarding passes and get through security.
  • Arrive at least two hours before scheduled departure for domestic flights and three hours for international flights.
  • Have all travel documents ready – including COVID-19 test results or a vaccine card if required.
  • Pack an extra mask.
  • Prepare for long lines, delays and possible cancellations.
  • Tucson International Airport travelers can check flytucson.com to reserve parking spots, check gate information and find wait times to clear security.
  • Sky Harbor travelers can also check skyharbor.com to reserve parking spots, check gate information and find wait times to clear security.
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Kasey Brammell/Cronkite News

'Our passenger number has been steadily going up since the start of the pandemic,' says Greg Roybal, Phoenix Sky Harbor public information officer. 'We’re expecting plenty of travelers on Thanksgiving, and hopefully that means plenty of traffic for Christmas time, too.'