Thanksgiving holiday travel expected to rebound to near pre-pandemic levels

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BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – With Thanksgiving right around the corner, Tri-Cities Airport staff work to prepare for a potential influx of passengers.

“Compared to last year, we’re hoping to see a lot more people,” Airport Executive Director Gene Cossey said Wednesday.

According to Stephanie Milani, Public Affairs Director for AAA The Auto Club Group, they very well might.

“We’re not quite back to pre-pandemic levels for Thanksgiving travel, but it looks a lot better than it did last year,” she told News Channel 11 Wednesday.

AAA estimates 1.2 million Tennesseans to travel this Thanksgiving holiday, the vast majority of whom are expected to travel by car.

“The total forecasted number is only 3% below pre-pandemic levels, but depending on what mode of travel, we’re looking at a 10 to 12% rebound from last year’s travel numbers,” Milani said.

Gas prices began to surge in October, reaching levels last seen in 2012, she said.

“We don’t expect gas prices to deter people who are traveling to cancel their plans or to alter their plans other than just to spend that money on gasoline instead of maybe going shopping or eating out or entertainment,” she said.

The Auto Club also reported domestic air travel has almost completely recovered from its plummet during the pandemic and is up 80% from 2020.

“Compared to 2019 and before, we’re not really sure what to expect, we’re not sure if it’s going to be as busy as it’s ever been, or if it’s going to be close to being busy and that’s one of the things with coming out of COVID we really don’t know exactly what it’s gonna look like. We’re confident though, that we can handle whatever number of passengers are coming through,” Cossey said.

The Tri-Cities Airport reported a 43% increase in passenger traffic at its TSA checkpoints from 2019 to 2020 for the two weeks surrounding Thanksgiving.

Cossey warned that passengers should be patient and prepared when traveling this holiday season, especially when it comes to federal COVID-19 mandates, like wearing a mask in airports and on airplanes.

“You still have to wear it when you’re waiting for your flight unless you’re eating or drinking and you are still required to have it onboard the aircraft and anybody traveling international really need to be aware of the requirements for coming back into the country,” he said.

International COVID travel bans were recently lifted.

“I know several people who are going on vacations to areas that they haven’t been able to go to for the last two years. And they’re just clamoring to get to those areas and I think we will see more of that being that people have not been able to make those trips in the last couple of years. And so the international travel is probably going to pick quite up pick up quite a bit for the holidays, which is going to be excellent and wonderful,” Cossey said.

But he warned that international travelers should still be prepared.

“Now you need to be aware of the requirements for going into those countries. But you also need to be aware of the requirements for coming back. For instance, if you traveled to Mexico, there are no requirements for going in. But for coming back you have to show a negative COVID test. So being aware of those things is important,” he said.

When it comes to small or large airports, Cossey said passengers should arrive a little earlier than usual before their flights this season.

“It’s really easy to get in and out of here. And so people tend to wait until the last minute to show up. Even when we get busier though you might want to show up a few minutes earlier than you normally do,” he said.

But it all depends on the swing of the pandemic pendulum.

“The only thing that we could see change a lot of travel plans is if we see another surge in COVID cases,” Milani said. “However, if that doesn’t happen, and then more people are starting to feel more comfortable with a lot of people getting vaccinated. We’ve actually seen more travelers on the road than predicted and so one thing is for certain there will be a lot of traffic, people going to visit their families this holiday season, and really enjoying what they missed out on last year.”

Milani also advised that those who are traveling either by plane, train, or automobile this holiday season and will not be staying with family, go ahead and book hotel rooms. She said that most establishments have a 24-hour cancellation policy, so even if you don’t use the room, book it anyway, just in case. Just don’t forget to cancel the room promptly if plans change.

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