With a pandemic fading in the rearview mirror, a travel bug is now spreading among a public eager to leave behind quarantine life.
One sign that people are rushing to get out of Dodge is the passenger volume reported by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and the San Antonio International Airport, which spiked last weekend and is expected to jump again Thursday, considered the start of the summer travel season.
Nationwide, TSA screened more than 1.8 million people at airport security checkpoints on May 23, with Sundays continuing to be one of the busiest travel days of the week as air travel returns to more normal levels. Air traffic was busiest at the Atlanta airport, with Dallas/Fort Worth and Denver in second and third place.
More passengers flew through San Antonio International Airport on May 23 than the same day two years ago, a full nine months before the coronavirus pandemic grounded air travel around the world, said Brian Pratte, chief air service development officer for the airport, in an email.
The San Antonio airport is expecting another big weekend starting Thursday and continuing through Monday. Though the number of flights will be down by 20% compared to this time in 2019, they are up 200% over last year.
“We anticipate approximately 190-200 total flights each day, which includes both inbound and outbound,” Pratte said. The total number of seats sold is up 225% over 2020 when lock-down orders stifled nearly all movement.
He said the airlines, which had limited capacity through much of the pandemic to increase social distancing, are reporting that planes will be at least 90% full this weekend, “which equates to over 120,000 total passengers during the five-day period.”
Nearly 2.5 million Americans are boarding planes during the Memorial Day weekend, six times more than last year, according to the travel service provider AAA.
Though that’s 750,000 fewer people taking to the skies this year compared to 2019, major air carriers are reporting continued improvement in leisure travel numbers, if not business travel.
On April 22, Southwest Airlines officials said in a quarterly earnings report that it estimated second quarter 2021 bookings will represent a 90 percent increase over 2020 but a drop of 15% compared to 2019.
The airline is also seeing increased bookings into June and July as people plan their vacations. For San Antonio residents, the new budget airline Breeze Airways recently announced new flights launching July 15 with routes between San Antonio and Bentonville/Fayetteville, Arkansas; Oklahoma City; and Tulsa.
But business travel, the lifeblood of most airlines, continues to lag behind leisure travel, according to Southwest.
Travel agent Carole Newbill, owner of Global Travel Adventures at 13485 Wetmore Road, said that after a “difficult” year, she’s now so busy making travel plans for clients that she’s hiring and training new agents. “We’ve been overwhelmed,” she said.
Many travel agencies closed their doors permanently during the pandemic and there are fewer places around the world allowing tourists.
Destinations in Europe are atop most travelers’ wish lists, but resorts in Mexico, Florida, and Las Vegas aren’t far behind. While requests for cruise travel never let up during the pandemic, she said, demand is slowing as ships begin to sail again and cruises aren’t rescheduled.
Negotiating for refunds amid cancellations took up a lot of her time as does helping clients navigate new public health protocols established during the pandemic.
“Right now, it’s still a little bit difficult because we have to make sure that we keep updated and make sure that the countries allow them and they take their [negative COVID tests] … because if it’s one day late, they get denied,” Newbill said. “So the responsibility has changed incredibly.”
At the airport, officials are prepared for the upcoming travel weekend because it maintained operational staff during the pandemic, a spokeswoman said.
But airline workers, many who were laid off or furloughed in the last year, are also returning, and most airlines are beginning to resume in-air food and beverage service halted during the pandemic, according to travel site The Points Guy.
The airport is also working with airport concessionaires to expand hours, add staff, and stock up on provisions, Pratte said.
Travelers should be prepared for an airport that’s much busier than it was just months ago, the spokeswoman said, and arrive at least two hours ahead of flight times to check in, go through security, and make their way to the gate.
Check for flight delays ahead of time, and if you get stuck in a terminal far from your destination, don’t feel alone – see the FlightAware Misery Map for a visual of flight delays across the country.
In addition, all travelers, including those who are fully vaccinated, are required to wear face masks on planes and in airports, per guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this month.