Wary and wearing masks, travelers take to skies for Thanksgiving

Posted November 23, 2020 6:15 a.m. EST
Updated November 23, 2020 6:19 p.m. EST

— Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Raleigh-Durham International Airport is preparing for a busy Thanksgiving travel week.

Michael Landguth, CEO of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority, said the airport expects 83,500 passengers to depart from RDU this week, a 7% increase compared to the past couple of weeks.

Emily Mann and Claudia Rafa, both students at Wake Forest University, are among them. They were headed home to New York on Monday.

"We got tested yesterday, or two days ago, and we’ll probably get tested again upon coming home before seeing people," Mann said.

Rafa said her parents "talked to me about cleaning every surface and keeping my mask on."

While both expressed a bit of nervousness, Mann said, "I think it seems pretty safe. It looks like everyone is pretty much abiding by all the rules."

That everyone is expected to number more than 18,000 travelers on Sunday, predicted to be the busiest day of the week at RDU and the busiest since the pandemic began. Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, is expected to be the second-busiest day, with an estimated 16,800 passengers traveling.

In comparison to the 18,200 expected this Sunday, 54,800 passengers passed through RDU on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019.

Thanksgiving aside, Landguth said the airport has seen an increase in travelers in recent months. In November, more travelers said they felt safer to fly than they did in May, Landguth added. Around two-thirds of airport traffic has been leisure as opposed to business, indicating that people are ready to travel again.

Jessica Corey was headed from her home in Durham to visit and help care for her grandparents in Ohio.

"My grandparents are 86 and 89. My grandfather has cancer, and my grandmother is the caretaker of him. It’s really important for me to get whatever time I can with them," she said. "Those needs kind of outweigh the other concerns. As soon as I walk in the door, I’ll jump in the shower before I even let them touch me."

Duke University student Katie Zhou said, "I think everyone needs family time, right now especially."

She's counting on others to follow safety guidelines as well.

"If everyone else does their part and I do mine, we will be about as good as we can be," she said.

Despite RDU's precautions – plentiful sanitizer stations, plexiglass at check-in counters and signs reminding travelers to social distance – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still recommending people stay home and avoid traveling for Thanksgiving.

On Friday, one million travelers were screened through airport security nationwide for the first time since March, according to the TSA’s data. But the bustling holiday airports are exactly what health officials are advising against, asking people to instead stay home and celebrate with immediate family if possible.

Some airlines, including American, are allowing changes to flights with no penalty through Dec. 31 for travelers who booked flights early but changed their minds earlier this month when the CDC advised against Thanksgiving travel. Landguth advised travelers to check policies with their individual airlines.

According to AAA, air travel is still expected to see its largest one-year decrease on record for Thanksgiving, a nearly 48% drop, with just 2.4 million travelers expected to fly.

AAA forecasts nearly 48 million travelers will drive to their destinations – representing a 4.3% drop from last year in the number of people traveling by car over the holiday period, which AAA defines as Wednesday to Sunday.

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