What officials call a "multiday passenger spike" is expected this week at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, as travelers take to the skies during the annual MEA conference break for state educators and students.
Airport officials say traffic at MSP could be just as busy as popular flying days during the summer and over the winter holidays. The MEA break, which begins Wednesday and lasts through the weekend, is typically a busy stretch at the airport — and early signs indicate that Minnesotans are anxious to travel again.
"Last year, we were heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic during MEA weekend," according to a statement from Brian Ryks, CEO of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates MSP. "This year, some days are forecast to nearly double the number of travelers at MSP compared to MEA weekend in 2020.
"We may see a day or two being some of our busiest of the year," he added.
Moreover, the uptick in travel at MSP during MEA weekend could be a kind of bellwether for the impending holiday travel season.
Thursday will likely to be the busiest day of the long weekend, with more than 34,000 departing passengers expected to clear Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints. Wednesday should be a close second, according to the MAC.
There will be peak periods for departing passengers on both days, the MAC added, particularly for the earliest flights. Five out of the six days from Tuesday to Sunday will see more than 26,000 passengers passing through MSP checkpoints, based on booking forecasts compiled by the MAC.
By comparison, MEA weekend travel last year hit an anemic single-day peak of about 17,400 passengers. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 47,000 passengers cleared TSA checkpoints on the busiest days at the airport.
Among MEA travelers getting an early start Tuesday at MSP were Mary Kenkel of Eagan and her daughter Alison, who were traveling to the Carolinas to check out colleges.
"We're saying this is a family trip disguised as a college tour," Mary said.
Fully vaccinated, the Kenkels have traveled a fair amount during the pandemic, so they had no qualms about taking a trip. "We're a family that travels," she said.
And the MEA weekend comes as Minnesota this week reported the seventh-worse infection rate in the nation — so destinations where people are headed actually may be in better shape.
Federal regulations still require everyone inside the terminals and aboard aircraft to wear face coverings, a mandate that expires in January.
Delta Air Lines, whose second largest hub is the Twin Cities, didn't provide specific data about the upcoming weekend. But the Atlanta-based carrier reports that domestic consumer travel has fully recovered to 2019 levels and anticipates strong November and December results.
Twin Cities-based Sun Country Airlines is reporting a similar buoyant return to the skies, with winter holiday bookings on par with 2019.
"When we look at MEA weekend travel patterns, our current bookings align with prepandemic levels in 2019, which is remarkable," said Sun Country spokeswoman Erin Blanton in an e-mail. "We're flying a busy schedule, with an increased number of trips to some of our more popular destinations across Arizona and Florida."
The decline of COVID cases in much of the country has been positively "affecting the comfort level of people who want to travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas," said airline and travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research.
But he said there are many unknowns for travelers in the near future, including vaccination mandates for TSA employees by Nov. 22 and federal contractors by Dec. 8, which includes major airlines such as Delta, MSP's dominant carrier.
The requirements could affect staffing at airlines, which might lead to delays and cancellations, Harteveldt said — and that's on top of the usual uncertainty regarding weather this time of year, particularly in Minnesota.
"This will be an angst-prone Thanksgiving," he said.
More airlines are serving the Twin Cities market this year compared with 2020. Airlines this month are operating 180 routes — 170 domestic and 10 international — with 389 average daily departures. That compares to about 135 routes and an average 300 daily departures in 2020, the MAC said.
Despite the pitfalls of air travel — such as Southwest Airlines' meltdown earlier this month, canceled flights, enraged passengers and expensive (or nonexistent) rental cars — people still want to get out of town.
U.S. airlines carried some 66 million passengers nationally in August, an increase of 162% compared with the prior August, but still nearly 21% below prepandemic levels in 2019, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
And more travelers may soon be added to the mix.
According to the travel website Skift, many families with children ages 5 to 11 may have been leery about traveling during the pandemic, instead opting for domestic trips or outdoor forays.
But the Food and Drug Administration next week will consider Pfizer's proposed vaccine for kids in this age group, and approval could mean more travelers taking to the skies, Skift noted.
Staff writer Gita Sitaramiah contributed to this story.