March is expected to be the busiest month at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago, thanks to travelers taking to the skies for spring break.
Air travel bookings show several days this month likely peaking at more than 28,000 passengers clearing security, said the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates MSP.
The previous daily peak during the pandemic was about 22,000 passengers on Dec. 27. Before the pandemic, a busy spring break travel day often resulted in some 35,000 to 45,000 travelers clearing security at MSP.
"As vaccinations make their way into more arms and people go crazy after a full year at home, there are signs that travel is picking up — both in the long-term and short-term," said Kyle Potter, editor of Thrifty Traveler, a Minneapolis-based travel website.
In addition, he said, airlines are offering "some absolutely crazy cheap airfare through the spring" to "woo travelers back to the sky."
In the past two weeks, Potter has found round-trip flights on Delta Air Lines from MSP to Maui through April for $293 and MSP to Costa Rica through mid-April for $218.
"These flights are typically double, if not triple, that price," he said.
MAC officials said Monday they expect 338 daily flights on average to depart from the airport this month — about 21 more than in December, which was relatively busy despite the pandemic. In April, the MAC is predicting an average 362 daily flights.
"The fact that Delta is discounting flights from its own hub, where it typically can charge a premium, shows that they're desperate to fill up some seats this spring before a real travel rebound can begin this summer," Potter said. "And it also shows that it's likely working."
However, March departures are still projected to be 34% below a year ago, indicating the degree to which the coronavirus continues to suppress air travel. And most food and retail concessions at MSP are still closed or operating with reduced hours.
"Employment levels [at MSP] are still incredibly low," said Wade Luneburg, political director for the UNITE HERE Local 17 labor union. The local represented about 1,100 workers at the airport before the pandemic, and now it's down to some 200 people, he said.
"While there will be far fewer spring break travelers this year than there were pre-pandemic, the airport will be busy, particularly at peak hours in the early and midmorning and midafternoon," MAC CEO Brian Ryks, said in a statement.
"We've invested heavily in making the air travel journey safer for those who need or choose to travel," Ryks said. "We strongly encourage travelers to support our health safety efforts by wearing their required face coverings, washing their hands regularly, using hand sanitizer, and abiding by social distancing recommendations, especially in check-in and security lines."
So far, 71 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees at MSP have been sickened with COVID-19, and at least one person has died as a result. While the number of employees working at restaurants and retail shops who have contracted the virus is unknown, 76 MAC employees have been diagnosed with COVID but no one has died of the virus.
The MAC advises air travelers to build more time into their schedules to get through the airport. Passengers should arrive at MSP at least two hours before a domestic flight and 2½ hours before an international flight.
Last summer, the MAC launched its Travel Confidently program, involving a "robust" cleaning effort that added protective barriers at customer contact points and hundreds of hand sanitizer stations, among other safety measures.
MSP's dominant carrier, Delta Air Lines, will increase its check-in capacity at Terminal 1. The airline will open its east curb check-in counters from 6 a.m. to noon beginning March 10. Delta's tram-level ticket counters will also be open periodically.
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752