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Ignoring CDC pleas, millions of Americans took flights over the weekend

Passenger Ana Ramos is given a coronavirus test at LAX on Tuesday.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Millions of Americans bought tickets to fly somewhere for Thanksgiving before the nation’s top public health agency pleaded with them not to travel for the holiday.

So what are they doing now? In many cases, they’re still crowding airports and boarding planes.

More than 2 million people went through security screening/checks at U.S. airports on Friday and Saturday, according to the Transportation Security Administration. While that’s far lower than during the same time last year, Friday was only the second time since mid-March that daily airport security checks topped 1 million.

That’s despite the fact that, a day earlier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to skip Thanksgiving travel and avoid spending the holiday with people from outside their household. The travel rush also comes despite the relatively lenient cancellation policies that major airlines have implemented since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged earlier this year.

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“Consumers should feel comfortable changing their plans and canceling their flights if they need to for health reasons,” said John Breyault of the National Consumers League.

Most airlines won’t pay cash to refund a flight if you decide to heed national health warnings, but they are waiving fees and offering vouchers. Breyault said to “familiarize yourself with the policies” because the voucher specifics vary by airline and can depend on when the ticket was booked.

Airports, train stations and rest stops are places where people are at risk of being exposed to the virus, and it can be difficult to stay six feet away from others, as health experts strongly recommend.

It’s not clear how many people are taking those vouchers. Images that emerged over the weekend of crowded airport terminals showed that plenty of people are deciding to fly anyway.

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The nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, said Sunday that he was worried that crowding at U.S. airports because of Thanksgiving travel could lead to a perilous situation as COVID-19 cases surge.

Fauci told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that people at airports “are going to get us into even more trouble than we’re in right now.” He said that new COVID-19 cases from Thanksgiving won’t become evident until weeks later, making it “very difficult” as the disease spirals out of control heading into colder weather and the December holiday season.

Airlines have emphasized what they’re doing to sanitize gates and kiosks, shorten lines and purify the air on board planes. But most are also offering opportunities for people to skip their holiday flights and travel later, though travelers might have to pay more for the replacement flight if it’s more expensive.

Southwest will fill middles seats starting Dec. 1. For Alaska, the date is Jan. 6

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Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said people who dropped their Thanksgiving travel plans were doing the right thing in following public health guidance.

“Airlines, which have already received billions in government bailouts, should provide passengers cash refunds when they are spending the holiday without both family and economic certainty,” Markey said in a statement Sunday.

For those still traveling, the TSA said it had prepared for higher traffic this Thanksgiving week, increasing staff levels to keep lines shorter and maintain social distancing. Some airports, such as LAX, are also offering coronavirus tests.

“We have been handling passenger volumes reaching more than 900,000 a day frequently since early October,” the agency said in an emailed statement Sunday.


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