Holiday rush at airports could begin earlier than usual, with less travelers

Stay home orders have been devastating for the travel industry this year, but with the holidays right around the corner, airports could get busier in the coming weeks.

Airport officials expect more people to take to the skies during the holiday season, but not only on typical travel days. 

Traffic at Austin Bergstrom International Airport already looks more promising than it did earlier this year.

"At one point in April, we were down close to about 97% and it's gradually started to return. By September, we're down about 70% from where we were a year ago, but still down significantly from normal trends this time of year," said Bryce Dubee, public information specialist for the City of Austin's Department of Aviation.  

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Airport officials don't expect the number of travelers to take off anytime soon. However, as the holidays approach, they are prepared for more people to get on board.

"Let's face it, as we approach the holidays, there's a lot of pent up demand out there. We know it's there and travelers are certainly looking for creative, safe ways to tap some of that pent-up demand and actually translate that into actual traveling," said Gabe Saglie, senior editor for Travelzoo.  

"We do advise travelers to give themselves a little time coming through, not only because there's a busy holiday travel season, even though our numbers will be lower than normal for holiday travel because some of those lines have some of these changes to their processes and it's gonna be a little bit more social distancing. There may be some crowding to that," Dubee said. 

Saglie said a survey of Travelzoo's members showed about a 20% drop in the number of people planning to travel for the holidays this year compared to last. Just under 35% said they would, although most planned to do so on the road.

Austin Bergstrom officials said a survey of their passengers showed almost 80% of them felt their airport experience was safe.

With some states mandating quarantines upon arrival, industry experts said the busiest travel days may shift to the weekend before each holiday rather than the day or two before.

"So, I think travel periods will just naturally be longer as a way to sort of navigate around restrictions that are in fact changing, in some cases, on a day to day, week to week basis... I think for a lot of folks who don't have more than a couple of days to spend at the destination, I think a lot of these restrictions are enough for them to sort of second guess traveling at all," said Saglie.

Still, like everything else this year, with local orders and COVID case counts changing by the day, for much of the country, holiday plans are still up in the air. Especially with airlines allowing for last-minute cancellations without penalty. 

"I think there's definitely a wait and see approach," Sagile said. 

While gathering restrictions at the Austin airport change depending on local orders; masks and social distancing remain mandatory. 

Dubee recommends passengers get to the airport two hours before their flight at peak travel times, that includes 6-8 am, 12-2 pm, and evening hours. For those traveling at other times, he said 90 minutes should suffice. 

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