Indianapolis International Airport joined other U.S. airports in seeing a bump in passengers around Thanksgiving, but experts don’t expect Christmas travel days to be as busy.
Nearly 8,000 people went through security screening at IND on the day before Thanksgiving, about twice as many as the previous Wednesday.
The jump shows many Hoosiers chose to fly for the holiday, despite calls from health leaders and Gov. Eric Holcomb to limit the spread of COVID-19 by spending Thanksgiving at home.
The numbers still pale in comparison to last year, when more than 15,000 people went through security in Indianapolis the day before Thanksgiving. Nationwide passenger totals over the Thanksgiving travel period this year were between 35% and 45% of last year’s figures, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
The TSA screened more than 1 million people on four separate days around Thanksgiving, a significant number in a year where air travel has been dramatically reduced by the pandemic.
In April, U.S. passenger totals dropped as low as 4% of the previous year. TSA screening totals did not reach 1 million on any day between March 17 and Oct. 18.
Why Christmas travel days may not be as busy
Henry Harteveldt, an airline, hotel and travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group, said he doesn’t expect to see that 1 million total again in coming weeks.
“I don’t think we get anywhere close to that level of people traveling on a single day during Christmas (or) New Year’s 2020,” he said.
One reason for this has nothing to do with the pandemic.
Whereas the Thanksgiving travel period is concentrated, with spikes the Wednesday before and Sunday after, the travel period around Christmas and other winter holidays is much longer. Harteveldt said it begins around Dec. 18-20 and ends about the Monday after New Year’s Day.
But he suspects recent surges in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths will play a role, too. Potential travelers have seen those numbers become worse worsen since Thanksgiving and have had time to adjust plans. Airlines are reporting increased cancellations in December as a result, Harteveldt said.
Evan Jordan, an assistant professor in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington’s Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies, agreed with Harteveldt’s projection. He also thinks people can be more flexible with holiday travel plans this year because of more opportunity to work from home and quarantine prior to seeing family.
“I think that combination of work flexibility and people taking safety measures will lead to an extended travel period surrounding the holidays,” he wrote in an email to IndyStar.
How safe is it to fly during the pandemic?
John Christenson, the medical director for infection prevention at IU’s Riley Hospital for Children, said some of the worsening COVID-19 numbers we’re seeing now are consequences of holiday travel from Thanksgiving.
“(We’ve had) record deaths in the month of November and into December in Indiana,” he said. “All that is consequences of people not following mitigation measures, and among those is traveling.”
He said you put yourself at higher risk any time you leave the “bubble” of your household, where you know whether the people around you are taking precautions such as mask-wearing and distancing.
Going into a busy airport exposes you to more people, but he said it is possible to protect yourself while flying.
“It can be done safely, but it requires a lot of work,” Christenson said, explaining travelers should wear masks and consider face shields or even goggles.
While he said the air quality on planes is very good, the most important thing on a plane is who you’re sitting next to. If that person isn’t taking precautions, you could be in danger. He said it’s best to have space between you and others, if possible. Many airlines have quit leaving middle seats open as they did earlier in the pandemic.
For this reason, Christenson said it’s safer to drive, where you can control who is around you in your vehicle.
Travelers also should quarantine before leaving and after arriving but before seeing your family. He knows this isn’t very practical.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t have 14 days to go on quarantine prior to travel and then quarantine myself another 14 days after, right?”
Even if you do travel safely, Christenson said risks grow when you see groups of people at your destination, especially if you don’t know if they’ve been carefully following safety measures.
That’s why he suggests staying home. That’s the safest thing he said people can do during the holidays.
“It’s not going to kill anybody to do Christmas over the phone this year,” he said.
Air travel industry will take what it can get
Both of the travel experts agree that airports and airlines will take whatever passengers they can get in this difficult year. Holiday increases in traffic can help them reduce the pain, not turn the corner, Harteveldt said.
Indianapolis International saw its activity drop to as little as 5% of typical operations this year. Leaders don’t expect passenger traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 or 2025.
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Keith Berlen, senior director of operations and public safety at the Indianapolis Airport Authority, said the recovery of passenger traffic at IND is tracking close to forecasts, including the holiday increase.
“Since the beginning of this pandemic and the reported cases in Indiana, the Indianapolis Airport Authority has continued to learn and take steps to make traveling safer, healthier, and more convenient through the Indianapolis International Airport (IND) every day,” he wrote in a statement provided to IndyStar.
Jordan, the tourism expert at IU, said he thinks vaccinations will make a big difference for summer travel — if the vaccine rollout meets expectations set by the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Harteveldt said airlines share this hope that vaccines will make a meaningful difference for the industry, perhaps by June.
“But there’s no question this is not going to be the cheeriest Christmas for airports or airlines,” he said, “whether we’re talking Indianapolis or anywhere else.”
Contact IndyStar transportation reporter Ethan May at email@example.com or 317-402-1058. Follow him on Twitter: @EthanMayJ.