Sunport Thanksgiving travel taking off again - Albuquerque Journal

Sunport Thanksgiving travel taking off again

Passengers make their way through the Albuquerque International Sunport on Tuesday as passenger traffic gets back to pre-COVID-19 levels. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

This year’s Thanksgiving travel period – defined by experts as Nov. 19 through Nov. 28 – will see 20 million passengers going through airport checkpoints to visit family and friends around the world.

In Albuquerque, a projected 65,000 to 70,000 passengers are expected to travel into and out of the airport during the period.

“We’re looking at an average of about 13,000 to 14,000 passengers per day between Wednesday and Sunday,” said Stephanie Kitts, spokeswoman for Albuquerque International Sunport, in an interview Tuesday. “That’s about a 250% increase over 2020.”

In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic was being tracked, Kitts said the Sunport’s average number of travelers during the Thanksgiving travel peak was between 17,000 and 18,000 passengers per day – numbers higher than this season’s projections.

“Part of that is because there are fewer people now traveling in general, and also because we are not up to the same capacity that we were in 2019,” Kitts said. “We have fewer flights and smaller aircraft, meaning less seats per flight.”

Shortly after the pandemic hit the U.S., many airlines were forced to cut costs by “offering voluntary early retirement to some employees, voluntary unpaid leave and freezing nonessential hiring – among other steps,” according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

Airlines also reduced flight frequencies and the number of airports they served, the report said.

With air travel now trending upward, the GAO stated, those cost-cutting efforts “have affected some airlines’ ability to meet returning demand.”

It’s an issue that has affected airports around the nation, including the Sunport.

“It is worth noting that our capacity isn’t able to accommodate the same number of travelers we had in 2019,” Kitts said.

Albuquerque’s projections – higher than last year, but lower than 2019 – are similar to airport numbers around the country, according to Transportation Security Administration travel data that shows the daily number of travelers passing through TSA checkpoints at U.S. airports.

On Nov. 22, 2019, for example, TSA reports that 2.25 million travelers boarded planes in the United States and, on that same day in 2020, there were 917,354 travelers. This year, there were 2.08 million travelers on that day.

Tips for travel

The numbers show that holiday mobility appears to be on the rebound from last year’s desolate season, but some industry experts are bracing for a problematic holiday travel season.

“Don’t be surprised if your flight, like a turkey, doesn’t take off and you have to spend an extra night or two at your destination,” stated Elaine Silvestrini in a Nov. 17 article for Kiplinger, publisher of business forecasts and personal finance advice. “Our best advice is to do like the Boy Scouts and be prepared; be ready to roll with whatever happens.”

A crew member makes his way Tuesday to a flight past closed stores and restaurants at the Sunport. The airport has seen a huge decrease in traffic due to the COVID-19 epidemic, but numbers this year are rebounding. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Patricia Mancha, TSA media spokesperson for New Mexico, said the best way to avoid travel problems is by following a familiar old adage: “Planning and organization are key,” she said.

Arrive early – two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights – and have your state-issued identification and tickets quickly accessible at the security checkpoint, Mancha said.

“A lot of people actually fumble for their documents and their ID, and that ends up slowing down the line for everyone, and for them, as well,” she said.

Another critical part of the air travel experience in the 2021 Thanksgiving season is the ongoing mask requirement issued by President Biden for commercial and public transportation systems.

“TSA will fully comply with the President’s Executive Orders, CDC guidance and the DHS National Emergency determination to ensure healthy and secure travel across all transportation sectors,” said Darby LaJoye, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the TSA Administrator in a media release. “As we continue to experience impacts from this pandemic, we are committed to this measure as the right thing to do for the TSA workforce, for our industry stakeholders and for passengers.”

Albuquerque Sunport passengers have been “pretty compliant” with the federal mask mandate, Kitts said.

“If we do have to ask somebody to put on a mask, generally they will do so. Overall, we are seeing really good compliance, so that has not been an issue,” she said.

AAA, a leading travel consultant with more than 61 million members, is predicting that 53.4 million people will pursue some sort of travel for the Thanksgiving holiday – an increase of 13% over last year – with air travel “almost completely recovering from its dramatic fall during the pandemic, up 80%” from last year nationally, stated Spokeswoman Ellen Edmonds in the AAA annual Thanksgiving travel report.

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