Tens of thousands expected to travel, pass through LAX in coming week

A passenger in personal protective equipment walks at Los Angeles International Airport.
A passenger wearing personal protective equipment walks though Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX last month.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Tens of thousands of travelers are expected to pass through Los Angeles International Airport this week, amid an alarming surge in coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County and pleas from public health officials for people to stay home and avoid gathering with family and friends outside their households.

The global COVID-19 pandemic drastically reduced air travel this year — in the early part of the pandemic, airport volume was down by as much as 96% compared with the same time last year — but the number of people traveling ticked up around Thanksgiving and again before Christmas, officials said.

L.A. was far more vulnerable to an extreme crisis from the coronavirus than nearly anywhere else in the nation.

Dec. 28, 2020

The Transportation Security Administration screened 1.176 million passengers the Sunday after Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year — and 1.191 million passengers the day before Christmas Eve, according to agency data. Many are expected to begin returning home to Southern California on Sunday.


At LAX, the busiest day during the pandemic came Nov. 20, when TSA officials screened about 44,000 travelers, according to airport data. Dec. 23 came in as a close second, with about 43,000 travelers passing through. Officials expected a similar number Sunday, typically another busy travel day as many people return home after Christmas.

Stephanie Sampson, a spokeswoman for the airport, said it’s been hard to forecast travel volume amid the pandemic and last-minute cancellations.

“We haven’t been making any predictions because we just don’t know,” she said.

Travelers arriving at LAX from other states or countries must self-quarantine for 10 days to see if they develop signs of illness. Quarantining also keeps people at home as much as possible, with groceries and restaurant food delivered to avoid spreading the virus in the community.

The Auto Club of Southern California forecast that 5.7 million Southern Californians would travel during the year-end period between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3, with the overwhelming majority of those expected to travel by car. Just 355,000 Southern California residents were expected to travel by air during this time — a drop of 54% compared with last year.

“People feel a lot more comfortable in a car with members of their own household,” Auto Club spokesman Doug Shupe said.

Earlier this month the Auto Club predicted some travelers would cancel their plans in the days leading up to Christmas and New Year’s as the number of COVID-19 cases surged, as was the trend during Thanksgiving.


Still, plenty of passengers did travel and gather with family and friends for Thanksgiving, contributing to what public health officials have called “a surge upon a surge” of COVID-19 cases, which have inundated hospital intensive care unit beds and pushed the Los Angeles County health system beyond the brink of capacity.

On Saturday, county health officials reported nearly 30,000 new coronavirus cases over a two-day period, beginning Christmas Day. Local health agencies also reported 136 deaths over the two-day period. The county has averaged about 14,000 new coronavirus cases a day and 88 COVID-19 deaths daily over the last week.

Los Angeles County has now reported a total of more than 707,000 coronavirus cases and more than 9,440 deaths.

“We really can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of Thanksgiving,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week. “Another spike in cases from the winter holidays will be disastrous for our hospital system, and ultimately will mean many more people simply won’t be with us in 2021.”