Airports become a surreal oasis from COVID fears, warnings as determined holiday travelers take flight

People wearing masks check in at LAX as Thanksgiving holiday travel gets underway.
People wearing masks check in at Los Angeles International Airport as Thanksgiving holiday travel gets underway. Despite the public health warnings to avoid Thanksgiving plane travel, some people are taking the risk.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It’s Thanksgiving week at Los Angeles International Airport, and you could almost forget a pandemic is raging, aside from the masks obscuring travelers’ faces.

On Monday morning, people shuffled through check-in lines less than six feet apart and clustered around luggage conveyors awaiting their bags. Their presence defied both logic and health guidelines: governors and public officials have been pleading for weeks for people to stay home amid a rapid surge of coronavirus cases.

For the record:

10:02 AM, Nov. 27, 2020An earlier version of this article said passenger traffic at Los Angeles International Airport so far in November was down about 30% compared with the same period last year. Traffic was about 30% of last year’s levels. The article also said passenger traffic dropped by 95% in March. That statistic was for April, not March.

But for some, the temptation to be with loved ones at the tail end of a trying year of fire, flood, politics and plague is too great.

“I weighed my options and felt that where I was going and who I would be with, I’d be safe,” said Kim Motz, who arrived on a Southwest flight from San Antonio to visit her daughter and 1-year-old grandson.

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Motz, 57, had planned to visit during Halloween but “freaked out and canceled,” she said. Not wanting to miss another opportunity to be with her family, she decided to forge ahead this time, despite the risk.

“All week long, the news was saying, ‘If you travel for Thanksgiving, you’re going to die. You’ll have a funeral at Christmas,’” she said. “I finally just had to turn it off.”

Jacquie Carney, 7, of San Antonio runs to hug her grandmother, Donna Vidrine of San Clemente at LAX.
Jacquie Carney, 7, of San Antonio, runs to hug her grandmother, Donna Vidrine of San Clemente, upon her arrival at LAX to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

An office manager at an engineering firm, Motz has co-workers and friends who have contracted the virus, though none have died. Her family plans to spend Thanksgiving delivering food to healthcare workers at the hospital where her daughter-in-law works as an emergency room nurse.

She said everyone on her flight wore masks and that she felt “very safe.”

Despite the public health warnings to avoid Thanksgiving plane travel, some people are taking the risk.

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Ahead of one of the biggest holidays of the year, L.A.-area airports feel surreal, an oasis of seeming normalcy amid masks, hand sanitizer stations and social distancing rules that sometimes crumble with the crowds, as if the pandemic were no match for the pull of tradition.

Travelers, after considering the trade-offs, have decided not to let 2020 upend their holiday plans.

Some say they feel perfectly safe. Others are worried but cannot take the isolation and have prioritized the need to connect with family or friends.

How to travel this holiday season by plane, train and car, and how to safely stay in a hotel or a rental. If you’re staying local, we have ideas for how to spend the time.

Philip Carney was on the same flight from San Antonio as Motz. He said he also weighed his options before deciding to fly with his daughter, Jacquie, 7, to visit family in San Clemente.

“We were a little concerned, but not too much — we’re from Texas,” he said, laughing.

His mother, Donna Vidrine, arrived at the curb outside Terminal 1 and scooped Jacquie into a big bear hug. It was the kind of moment many are dreaming of, yet sacrificing, this year.

All around them, the airport swirled with passengers who had made similar calculations.

A traveler waits for a ride after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport.
A traveler waits for a ride after arriving at LAX. The airport has been far less busy than usual this year, a spokesman said. So far in November, passenger traffic is down about 30% compared with the same period last year.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“This was planned back in June, and we still wanted to come,” said Mike Fetalsana, arriving on a Southwest flight from Dallas.

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Fetalsana said everyone on his flight wore masks, and he took his own mask off only for quick sips of water. He said he works in the healthcare system and is more aware of the risks than most people.

“I know what I need to do, and it’s stuff we should all be doing all along,” said Fetalsana, who is in his 40s. “Wash your hands and wear a mask.”

As you’re thinking about traveling this holiday season, you might ask yourself: What’s the infection level in your community? How many people are gathering? We have answers.

In L.A., Fetalsana will be staying in an Airbnb and limiting his contacts to close family members. He said he won’t get tested for COVID-19 while he’s here but will do so when he gets home.

Others were less concerned. Lisa George flew to L.A. from Las Vegas and has been traveling back-and-forth between the two cities for months to care for her sick mother.

George said she is more concerned about “hotheads and gangbangers with guns” than about the virus.

“I’m not scared,” she said.

Travelers wearing face coverings arrive at Los Angeles International Airport.
Starting Wednesday, travelers arriving at LAX, above, Van Nuys Airport or Union Station from out of state must sign a form acknowledging the state of California’s advisory to quarantine for 14 days.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

But not everyone was so carefree. Alberto, who is 44 and declined to give his last name, was sitting outside the Delta departure terminal wearing two masks.

He was on a three-hour layover between his home in the Bay Area and his destination in Jalisco, Mexico, and said he preferred to stay outside, where he felt safer.

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He’ll be spending Thanksgiving with friends but said he agonized over the decision and still questions whether it was right.

“What if I’m carrying [the virus] and I don’t know?” he said. “I’m still feeling terrible about it.”

Alberto has spent the last seven months alone in his apartment, where he teaches college students using Zoom. All of his human interactions during the pandemic have been “transactional,” he said, and the isolation was beginning to weigh on him.

“It’s a choice between seeing your friends and going nuts,” he said.

As he sat on the bench, alone on a cool misty morning, a couple pulled up to the curb in front of him and embraced in a long goodbye — a moment of near-normalcy.

Despite the throng of travelers, whose justifications for flying Monday were as varied as their destinations, the airport has been far less busy than usual this year, LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery said.

A pilot walks through a corridor at Los Angeles International Airport.
A pilot walks through LAX, where holiday travelers shuffle through check-in lines less than six feet apart and cluster around luggage conveyors awaiting their bags.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

So far in November, passenger traffic is down about 30% compared with the same period last year, he said.

LAX will likely average about 846 flights per day through Nov. 30, compared with 1,638 during that period in 2019, he said.

Still, airlines are flying more this week than through most of the pandemic. Montgomery said passenger traffic dropped by 95% in March and has slowly increased since then.

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While the airport anticipates more travelers around both the Thanksgiving and winter holidays, the recent increase in coronavirus cases and recommendations against nonessential travel could foreshadow a reversal, Montgomery said.

From thermal cameras to scheduled security checkpoint arrivals, airports are trying out a slew of new technologies and processes to convince travelers it’s safe to fly again.

Starting Wednesday, travelers arriving at LAX, Van Nuys Airport or Union Station from out of state must sign a form acknowledging the state of California’s advisory to quarantine for 14 days.

LAX recently launched three coronavirus testing sites, with results coming back within 24 hours at $150 each. Next month, the airport is planning to open a mobile testing unit that will provide results in as little as three hours.

The existing test sites have been busy and getting busier, said Elizabeth Cameros, a healthcare worker at one of the LAX sites.

Wearing a gown, face mask and shield, Cameros administered nasal swabs to Angela Buckley and Wade Hopkins, who had just come off a flight from Salt Lake City.

Elizabeth Cameros administers a deep nasal swab to traveler Wade Hopkins for coronavirus testing at LAX.
Healthcare worker Elizabeth Cameros administers a nasal swab to Wade Hopkins, who had arrived from Salt Lake City, at Los Angeles International Airport, which recently launched three coronavirus testing sites.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Both in their 30s, the two were getting tested so they could continue to Hawaii, which is requiring negative COVID-19 tests of all travelers.

“The optics definitely make it seem like L.A. is more shut down than Salt Lake City,” Hopkins said after finishing his test. “People there are still going to clubs and bars. It feels very different.”

Buckley, his girlfriend, said she knew people who had contracted the virus. But their symptoms weren’t serious, mostly “like a severe cold,” she said.

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She has been going to the office for her engineering job, while Hopkins mostly works from home. Neither found the decision to fly to Hawaii for Thanksgiving too difficult.

“We don’t come into contact with too many people, so we feel OK about it,” Hopkins said.

Buckley and Hopkins will confine themselves to a hotel in Los Angeles until they receive their test results by email.

Travelers arrive at Long Beach Airport.
Long Beach Airport is preparing for a 25% uptick in travelers during the holiday season, but passenger numbers will be much lower this year, a spokeswoman says.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

While LAX was buzzing, it was a different scene at Long Beach Airport. Only a handful of travelers stood outside late Monday morning awaiting pickup.

Leslie Freeman said her flight from Phoenix was “very pleasant” and that she had no concerns about traveling as she hopped into a ride-hail car and sped away.

Inside, the terminal at the regional airport was nearly empty. Airport spokeswoman Marlene Arrona said there is typically an early morning rush and a lull in the afternoon.

Long Beach is prepared for a 25% uptick in travelers around the November and December holidays, but, like LAX, the airport’s numbers will be substantially lower this year, Arrona said.

A traveler wearing a mask makes her way through John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
A traveler wearing a mask makes her way through John Wayne Airport in Orange County. The desire to be with loved ones at Thanksgiving has its risks but is too great for some plane passengers to pass up.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Hollywood Burbank Airport was similarly quiet.

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The holidays may bring a slight bump, but the airport’s overall bookings are down substantially, from roughly 525,000 passengers in November 2019 to a forecasted 112,000 in 2020, said airport spokeswoman Nerissa Sugars.

Angela Velasco, waiting for her flight back home to the Seattle area, was one of the few travelers there Monday afternoon.

She said she visited Las Vegas and L.A. on a pleasure trip after restaurants in Washington state, including an IHOP where she works as a server, shut down.

“I wanted to take advantage of that time off,” said Velasco, 28, who stayed at a Marriott hotel in Santa Monica this week. She is hoping her job will resume next month.

Once back home, she will quarantine at least until her COVID-19 test comes back negative, which means she will not be spending Thanksgiving with her family.

She doesn’t want to expose her older relatives to any coronavirus risk, she said.

A traveler is silhouetted by the afternoon sun and shadows at John Wayne Airport.
A traveler at John Wayne Airport. Though coronavirus cases have risen across the U.S., some people have decided not to let 2020 upend their holiday plans.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)