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U.S. airlines are about to confront their biggest test since the beginning of the pandemic.
Twenty months into the health crisis, the number of people expected to fly this Thanksgiving holiday season will approach pre-pandemic levels, airline officials say.
But those passengers’ journeys are in the hands of an industry still struggling to recover from the depths of the pandemic, when thousands of workers were sidelined as nearly empty planes crisscrossed the country.
Despite receiving billions of dollars from government rescue packages to ensure airlines were ready when demand returned, carriers are struggling to rebuild their operations.
“While we’ve had full flights and a lot more people at the airport since the beginning of the spring, we’ve never had a period when we’ve had such a large volume of travelers in such a compressed time frame,” aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt said.
“It puts everybody under an additional level of stress and strain.”
The Transportation Security Administration said it expects to screen 20 million people during the Thanksgiving week based on reservations data it receives from airlines, which would be about 85 percent of the passenger count in 2019.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving is projected to have 2.4 million air travelers, which would make it the busiest day at U.S. airports this year.
The increase comes alongside a federal mask mandate that has fueled a disturbing uptick in violent altercations, which airline workers say has left them exhausted and fearful.
Earlier this month, a Southwest Airlines employee was hospitalized after a passenger struck her in the head during a dispute. In October, an American Airlines flight attendant was hospitalized after a passenger punched her in the face.
However, concerns by some industry observers that a federal vaccine mandate could sideline thousands of airline workers during the holiday travel season were alleviated when a federal appeals court halted the Biden administration’s vaccine or testing requirement for private businesses.
Before that, the administration had pushed a December deadline for compliance to January, giving the industry time to get through the holidays.
American, Southwest and Spirit Airlines are among carriers that have stumbled this year, canceling thousands of flights and leaving customers stranded at airports across the country this summer and fall — in part because of staffing shortages.
The airlines say they have taken steps — such as bringing more workers back and trimming flight schedules — to ensure a smooth holiday season.
While the TSA avoided high-profile mishaps as the number of daily air passengers surpassed 1 million, then 2 million this spring and summer, it has struggled with staffing. Earlier this year, the agency launched an aggressive campaign to hire 6,000 new officers, offering signing bonuses and other incentives.
Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said during the House subcommittee meeting that long wait times should be expected over the holidays at the nation’s airports.
Harteveldt, the analyst, said this season is one in which patience and compromise are going to be important for travelers.
“My hope is that we will have a drama-free Thanksgiving. That’s what we all need to hope for,” he said.