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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Despite pleas to stay home, air travel on the rise

A holiday traveler makes his way through the new acrylic barriers on Wednesday at Spokane International Airport. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

As the number of new coronavirus cases reaches record highs, so too has pandemic air travel.

Although the volume pales in comparison to last year, millions of travelers across the country still shuttled through security lines and boarded planes this week, even as public health and government officials urged people to stay home for the holiday.

On the ground, travelers can expect some winter driving through the Cascades or the Rocky Mountains and some dense early morning fog.

At lower elevations, the conditions are expected to be clear through the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

Spokane International Airport declined to provide an estimated number of passengers that have recently come through its gates.

But across the country, more than 900,000 people passed through airport security checkpoints during each of the past six consecutive days up through Tuesday, according to Transportation Security Administration data, making it the busiest stretch since the pandemic began.

While the airport might be busier than at lower points of the pandemic, it can expect passenger traffic to remain lighter than during the holidays of years prior.

“As a practical matter, passenger activity has fallen due to pandemic responses in Washington and other states, which has reduced travel in Spokane and across the nation,” airport spokesman Todd Woodard said.

The airport has made a number of operational changes during the pandemic. Masks are required and seating is reduced around gates to improve social distancing. It’s also distributing “wellness kits” that include a mask, latex gloves and hand-sanitizer.

Passengers are still advised to arrive at least 90 minutes prior to their flight’s boarding time but, this year, it’s not because of a heavy volume of holiday travelers. Instead, that buffer accounts for the TSA safety protocols that increase the time it takes to screen each person.

Although it peaked at more than 1 million passengers on Sunday, nationwide air travel is a far cry from the same time last year. In 2019, 26 million travelers went through TSA checkpoints, an all-time high, according to the TSA.

In 2020, the pandemic has made travel so uncertain that the industry trade group Airlines for America declined to issue a holiday travel forecast.

Still, American airports are relatively busy.

Europe has imposed tighter restrictions, and traffic between countries was down by 83% in September compared to the same month in 2019, the Associated Press reported.

On Nov. 13, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a travel advisory recommending that people arriving in Washington quarantine for 14 days. Spokane International Airport notes that this is a recommendation, not a restriction, and that travel choices remain up to individuals.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Inslee repeated his plea that Washingtonians stay home for Thanksgiving, citing increasing hospitalizations and an already-strained health care system that could be further burdened by more spread of the disease.

“Frankly, the least we could do is maybe defer a dinner for a while,” Inslee said.