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Thanksgiving Draws Travel to a Pandemic Peak

The weekend after Thanksgiving met expectations that it would be the busiest travel period in the U.S. since the coronavirus pandemic began, aided by clement weather and lower gas prices that encouraged some to drive rather than fly.

Almost 50 million people were expected to have made a journey during the Thanksgiving holidays, said AAA, despite tightening local clampdowns and warnings from federal health officials. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 19 recommended people not travel over Thanksgiving.

The number of travelers from Nov. 25 through Nov. 29 was down more than 10% from a record set last year, according to AAA, which includes flights and road trips of more than 50 miles. Airlines, which boosted capacity earlier in the month only to trim flying when cancellations started to climb in recent weeks, said traveler numbers were in line with their revised expectations.

The Transportation Security Administration said that its workers screened more than 964,000 people on Saturday, down 37% from a year earlier, and more than a million on Nov. 25, the busiest flying day since March. TSA said that it expected screenings on Sunday to be higher than that. Travel flows were helped by the lack of winter storms that blighted travel last year, triggering thousands of scrubbed flights in the Northeast and on down the East Coast. Only around 200 flights were scrubbed across the country over the weekend, with the total number of flights down by around a half from a year ago.

Most airlines have been filling planes to fly full or plan to do so soon. Southwest Airlines Co.has been capping the number of passengers—the equivalent of leaving middle seats empty—but plans to stop that practice Dec. 1. American Airlines Group Inc. and United Airlines Holdings Inc. have been filling middle seats for months.

Airlines say research indicates the risk of transmission during flights is low even when they are full. Some travelers have said they have been alarmed when flights appear full. Delta Air Lines Inc. has said it would continue blocking middle seats through March.

Airlines said that they didn’t expect higher holiday demand to spill over into this week, even though more passengers have been booking—and canceling—at the last minute. Most airlines have dropped change fees to encourage demand.

“We had average loads, as expected, with a slight uptick in cancellations,” said a spokesman for Southwest.

Many would-be fliers opted to remain at home or drive. The AAA forecast road journeys would be down around 4% from last year, even as gas prices fell to their lowest level since 2015, averaging $2.13 a gallon for regular on Nov. 29. Rail and bus travel is expected to be 76% lower over the holiday period, said AAA. Amtrak hasn’t updated ridership numbers for the Thanksgiving season.

Jessica Brown decided to stick to her plans to fly to Tampa, Fla., to visit family for the holiday. She works from home and so do most of her relatives, which she said led them to conclude that they could celebrate together safely.

She said Los Angeles International Airport last week was busier than when she flew in June, but not as crowded as it normally is during the holiday season. “For the most part, people are social distancing,” she said.

Other travelers decided to call off their plans.

When Frank Gervasi took a trip to Denver over the summer, he said airports were relatively empty and he had a row to himself on his flight. But as Covid-19 case numbers climbed this fall, he said he began to have second thoughts about a trip to New Jersey from Phoenix to visit family for Thanksgiving.

He thought that crowds would probably be bigger for the holiday. He’s still going to work in a bar, so quarantining before the trip would be impossible. He canceled his trip about two weeks before the holiday.

This article originally appeared on Wall Street Journal

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