2 million people passed through US airports this weekend despite COVID-19 warnings

ByTrish Hartman, Katherine Scott WPVI logo
Monday, November 23, 2020
Experts worry about busy travel week
The CDC advises Americans against Thanksgiving travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite advice from health officials against unnecessary travel, the TSA reports it has screened more than 2 million people over the last few days.

Millions of Americans bought tickets to fly somewhere for Thanksgiving before the nation's top public health agency pleaded with them not to travel for the holiday.

So what are they doing now? In many cases, they're still crowding airports and boarding planes. That's despite relatively lenient cancellation policies that major airlines have implemented since the coronavirus pandemic emerged earlier this year.

"Consumers should feel comfortable changing their plans and canceling their flights if they need to for health reasons," said John Breyault of the National Consumers League.

Most airlines won't pay cash to refund a flight if you decide to heed national health warnings, but they are waiving fees and offering vouchers. Breyault said to "familiarize yourself with the policies" because the voucher specifics vary by airline and can depend on when the ticket was booked.

It's not clear how many people are taking those vouchers. Images that emerged this weekend of crowded airport terminals showed that plenty of people are flying anyway.

For many who are traveling, it wasn't a decision they made lightly.

SEE ALSO: Coronavirus News: CDC releases updated guidelines for Thanksgiving

The CDC released its most specific guidance yet for how to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday as safely as possible

Justin Coffin of Elmira, New York, is making the trek to Oklahoma to see extended family for Thanksgiving. In addition to getting tested, he says he and his family strategized about how they would spend time with his 87-year-old grandmother.

"We could do some things with grandma and her wear a mask, us wear a mask, have her quarantine within the house so it's not as dangerous for her," said Coffin.

Amelia Rosenbaum is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania and was flying home to Chicago on Sunday.

"I got two negative tests this week. Penn did a really good job with making testing accessible for everyone," said Rosenbaum. She's also not returning to campus until sometime in 2021.

Despite advice from health officials against unnecessary travel, the TSA reports it has screened more than two million people over the last few days.

"We have shields we're going to put on. We're going to wipe our stuff down when it goes through security, our chairs, seats. When we get there, when we get our luggage from baggage claim, we're going to wipe that off as well. Shower when we get there," said another traveler.

On Sunday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation's top infectious disease experts, discouraged people from gathering with people outside their immediate family, whether they're flying or staying local.

"Consider the people that you want to get into your own family unit. Do you want to bring a large number of people with a big dinner party or a social event, and when you're eating and drinking, you obviously have to take your mask off? We know now that those are the kinds of situations that are leading to outbreaks," said Fauci.

Fauci also said that people at airports "are going to get us into even more trouble than we're in right now." He said that new COVID-19 cases from Thanksgiving won't become evident until weeks later, making it "very difficult" as the virus spirals out of control heading into colder weather and the December holiday season.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some - especially older adults and people with existing health problems - it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Airlines have emphasized what they're doing to sanitize gates and kiosks, shorten lines and gatherings and purify the air. But most are also offering opportunities for people to skip their holiday flights and travel later, though travelers might have to pay more for the replacement flight if it's more expensive.

Some have argued that airlines should do more. U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has pushed for cash refunds for skipped flights during the pandemic, said people who dropped their Thanksgiving travel are doing the right thing and following public health guidance.

"Airlines, which have already received billions in government bailouts, should provide passengers cash refunds when they are spending the holiday without both family and economic certainty," he said in an emailed statement Sunday.

For those still traveling, the TSA said it had prepared for higher traffic this week, increasing staff levels to keep lines shorter and maintain social distancing.

"We have been handling passenger volumes reaching more than 900,000 a day frequently since early October," the agency said in an emailed statement Sunday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.