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3.5 million travelers expected to pass through LAX this holiday season as Omicron arrives

Airport travelers push carts past a sign offering a free COVID-19 rapid test
Travelers arrive at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, where the county set up a free rapid coronavirus testing site.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Holiday travelers are expected to slam Los Angeles International Airport beginning this week, with the airport estimating it will see 3.5 million visitors between Thursday and Jan. 3.

“Last year, 1.85 million passengers went through LAX during this time, making this year almost twice as busy,” airport officials said Thursday in a release.

This year’s figures look to be a return to near 2019 levels, when 4.5 million travelers used the airport during the last pre-pandemic holiday season.

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The airport expects travel to peak Dec. 17, 19 and 26, and Jan. 2 with more than 200,000 travelers each day.

The increased volume has been driven by an increase in demand and in travelers’ confidence around the COVID-19 pandemic, airport officials said.

As more countries detect cases of the Omicron variant, conferences and business gatherings are being canceled. U.S. travel hasn’t yet been curtailed.

“There’s a lot of people who have been waiting to travel,” said Heath Montgomery, an LAX spokesman. “We keep hearing stories about families that are visiting from overseas, and even from within the country, and they’re meeting grandchildren that they’ve never met before for the first time.

“I think [travelers’] overall confidence level has risen this year,” Montgomery said, although with the Omicron variant, “cautious optimism is where we’re at.”

The surge in travel is coinciding with a surge in COVID-related hospitalizations in the state over the last three weeks and the rise of new Omicron cases. Overall COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 16% statewide and up 39% in Los Angeles County in that time, and Omicron has been confirmed in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

With the numbers rising, a new, statewide indoor mask mandate took effect Wednesday.

“I think something that will be important is for travelers to take a little more personal responsibility to stay physically separated from people who aren’t in their immediate travel group,” Montgomery said, adding that the airport has continued deep cleaning.

Omicron has already affected parts of the travel industry, with travelers from outside the United States now required to have tested negative for the coronavirus 24 hours before their departure. Previous guidance allowed for a negative test up to three days before departure.

The surge in travelers also brings logistical hurdles for those hoping to board a flight to or from LAX.

“On our peak days we could have upwards of 90,000 vehicles a day come through the central terminal area,” Montgomery said. With the increased volume of passengers and traffic, people should give themselves extra time to get to the airport, he said.

The Omicron variant isn’t affecting California universities’ plans yet, but an increase in protections may be on the horizon.

And for travelers who are parking at the airport, which more people have been doing in recent months, Montgomery advises reserving spots early, as nearly all of LAX’s lots were filled during the Thanksgiving travel period.

“Not only does that get you a guaranteed space for the duration of your stay and you know exactly where you’re going to park, but it also gives you a discounted rate” depending on the length of stay and parking location, he said. “I think that’s the No. 1 thing people can do.”


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