In a sure sign of weariness with the pandemic, thousands of Minnesotans are expected to take to the highways and skies to celebrate Thanksgiving this week — despite a concerning rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the state.
"It's clear that we're going to see the biggest surge in travel yet over Thanksgiving," said Kyle Potter, executive editor of the Thrifty Traveler website. "Right or wrong, people are putting the pandemic behind them, taking trips home or vacations that they put off this time last year."
Nationally, AAA predicts some 53 million people will travel by car, train or plane for Thanksgiving, the vast majority of them driving.
Motorists will discover the highest gas prices in seven years, according to the travel and navigation app GasBuddy. In recent days, AAA says the price of gas has inched downward, but the average price for a gallon in Minnesota is still $3.17, though fuel was a bit cheaper at some spots throughout the Twin Cities.
The most dramatic recovery will come in air travel, which, despite being savaged at the height of the pandemic, has nearly recovered to 2019 levels. And with the recent opening of U.S. borders to fully vaccinated international travelers, more than 4 million passengers will head to airports nationwide.
"We've seen increasing activity in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, and I think this shows that, while we aren't quite at pre-pandemic levels, people who haven't traveled much or at all in the last year or so should expect busy airports," said Jessica Mayle, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
For domestic flights, travelers are advised to arrive two hours before takeoff, and three hours before international trips.
TSA is expecting more than 200,000 passengers to be screened at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport this week from last Sunday through next weekend. Screenings for the week ending Nov. 14 were 82% of pre-pandemic levels, a ramp-up that will likely be surpassed this week.
On Friday night, one of the top travel days at MSP, lines at security checkpoints in Terminal 1 were long, but moving, with waits of less than 30 minutes.
Marty and Alissa Sundstedt, who were traveling from the Twin Cities to Dallas with their 13-month-old son, were unperturbed about the prospect of crowded airports and planes.
"We've traveled a lot since this whole thing began," said Marty Sundstedt, referring to the pandemic. "It feels like we're getting back to normal."
Officials at MSP are prepared for a "significant spike" in passengers. Wednesday will likely be the busiest day with more than 32,000 passengers — close to pre-pandemic levels — expected to wind through security checkpoints, according to the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which owns and operates the airport.
The travel surge comes as Minnesota struggles to contain what health officials call an "alarming level" of COVID-19 cases spurred by the extremely transmissible delta variant. Federal regulations still require that masks be worn at airports and on aircraft.
"We're from Iowa, we're not used to wearing masks," said Angie Gansen of New Hampton, while checking in for a flight to New York City. She was accompanying four teens who are to perform in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Staffing shortages at the airport will likely affect travelers in many ways, whether it's canceled or delayed flights or fewer choices at shops and restaurants. Overall, 81% of MSP's food and beverage and retail outlets are open at least part time, according to the MAC.
TSA's Mayle said MSP is "staffed appropriately. We've not seen staffing issues impact wait times."
But Neal Gosman, a spokesman for Local 899 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents TSA employees at MSP, said the airport is short-staffed and advises travelers to come prepared.
"I don't want to see people miss their flight, and I've seen that happen a couple of times," said Gosman, who works at the Terminal 2 checkpoint. "It has been really busy. We are doing the best we can, but people may have to wait."
Several airlines have struggled in recent months to keep up with the recovery in air travel. Southwest, Spirit and American delayed or canceled thousands of flights in operational meltdowns caused, in some cases, by bad weather, but exacerbated by shortages of pilots, flight attendants and other key employees.
"My big question is whether airlines and airports alike are prepared to handle this big influx. Warning lights have been flashing for the last few months," said Thrifty Traveler's Potter.
The problem, he said, is that "airlines that downsized earlier in the pandemic are now eager to sell as many tickets as they can — but they're too smallto meet growing travel demand without issues. When something goes wrong, they don't have enough people and planes to recover. Mass cancellations follow."
Delta Air Lines, MSP's dominant carrier, expects to double the number of passengers traveling over Thanksgiving from last year to 5.6 million. The Atlanta-based airline expects 300,000 passengers to travel via MSP for Thanksgiving.
So far, customers aren't fazed by the virus surge in Minnesota, said Mary Loeffelholz, Delta's vice president of airport operations at MSP.
"COVID hasn't dampened demand," she said. "I wonder if people are saying, 'You know what, we need to live. We need to get on with our lives and we need to get away.' "
Staff writer Gita Sitaramiah contributed to this report.