No more than a dozen people stood in ticket counter lines at the San Antonio International Airport on Wednesday. The baggage carousels were mostly still while a steady stream of cars and taxicabs waited in the arrivals lane outside. 

During what is traditionally the busiest travel season of the year at airports across the country, travelers in face masks and plastic shields arrived at an airport that was without the usual holiday bustle and crowds.

“I expected it to be a little busier,” said Kaethy Schmidt, an airport ambassador volunteer posted at an information kiosk in Terminal A. “But I would be embarrassed if they were paying me. I’d feel guilty. I wish it would be busier.”

Volunteer Kaethy Schmidt assists airport travelers the day before Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But the airport was, in fact, busier than it has been since March when passenger counts plummeted. San Antonio airport officials were forecasting Thanksgiving travel volumes to reach 50 percent of last year’s.

Data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) shows the total number of passengers who traveled through the San Antonio airport between Nov. 20 and 22 was 19,321, breaking daily records for a year consumed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Yet the total is 40 percent of last year’s passenger count during the pre-Thanksgiving weekend. 

With coronavirus case counts rising across the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pleaded with Americans not to travel for the holiday

The message fell short. On Sunday, TSA agents screened more than 1 million people at airports across the country – a count that parallels pre-pandemic screening numbers, though still 1.5 million less than the Sunday before Thanksgiving last year. 

The travel organization AAA anticipated a 10 percent drop in holiday travel due to the pandemic.

Those who did travel through the San Antonio airport on Wednesday were looking forward to being home regardless of the risk. 

Caleb Young, a freshman at Auburn University in Alabama, waited for his luggage just after noon along with a small group of other passengers from his flight. 

After a semester of cooking on his own, Young was looking forward to a Thanksgiving dinner at his grandparents’ house. “I don’t like turkey all that much,” he said. “I like ham and brisket so that’s what we’ll probably have.”

Before the festivities, however, Young planned to get a COVID-19 test at the AT&T Center, he said. “If I were to have [COVID-19], and I have dinner with them, I’d feel bad when I could have just gotten tested.”

Caleb Young collects his checked bag from the luggage carousel following a flight from Alabama on Wednesday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In Terminal B, military service members lined up at ticket counters with duffels packed full. An ambassador said the terminal had become less crowded as the day wore on. But the terminal where Southwest Airlines operates was busier in the afternoon. 

At the ticket counter for Mexican carrier Volaris, an agent greeted the dozen or so people who waited in line, checked their temperatures, and reminded them to have their passports ready. One of the travelers, Anna Rodriguez, leaned on her rolling luggage cart to check in for her flight to Mexico City. 

Wearing a medical-grade mask, Rodriguez said she was flying to visit her parents for the Thanksgiving holiday. “I did think maybe I wouldn’t travel but, with good preparations, I think you can travel,” she said. “A good mask and being really careful.”

Also, some travel destinations might be safer than others. The public health company Kinsa used data from a network of smart thermometers, mobile applications, and case numbers, to forecast that in the next week, there will be “critical” hotspots in Colorado, Michigan, and Illinois. 

But Bexar County was among the 10 counties that Kinsa found to be the safest bets for travel during the Thanksgiving holiday.

A vending machine selling personal protective equipment is located near the TSA security line in Terminal A. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Denise Tovar, a store clerk in the airport’s Never Too Late business center and souvenir shop, described the terminal traffic as “steady and slow.” She was expecting at least a quarter of the foot traffic the store had last year, she said. “But it doesn’t look like it’s going to be,” Tovar said. 

The pandemic has delivered mixed results for the tiny store that sells pink cowboy hats, Alamo figurines, River Walk postcards, and now face masks. 

“Before the COVID, we were doing great, and then COVID happened, and we ended up being the only store open so that actually helped us out a little bit more,” she said. “But tomorrow is going to be like tumbleweeds.”

At the bottom of the stairs near baggage claim, a father and mother stood with their two daughters waiting for a son to arrive from New Mexico, where he is stationed. 

The family of six was looking forward to seeing the service member who hadn’t been home in more than two years, but this year’s Thanksgiving would look different than in past years. 

“We’re not inviting the rest of the extended family members,” Joel Gonzales said. “Typically, it’s a really big celebration. It’s tough because it’s been a couple of years since any of the family has seen him.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.