US airports had busiest pandemic-era day on Friday

AvatarPosted by

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is not even here yet and we’ve already seen a pandemic record for the number of travelers going through U.S. airports. Agents at TSA checkpoints screened 2,454,781 passengers on Friday, topping the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2021 as the single busiest travel day since February 2020. It’s a record that comes just days before even larger crowds are expected as part of the upcoming holiday.

Friday’s crowds were part of an ongoing trend. Four of the five busiest days at U.S. airports since the pandemic brought travel to a halt in 2020 have come in the last ten days. It’s proof of what we’ve been expecting for months: a summer travel season unlike any in recent years.

BREAKING: @TSA officers screened 2,454,781 people at airport security checkpoints nationwide yesterday, Friday, June 24. It was the highest checkpoint volume since Feb. 11, 2020, when 2,507,588 people were screened. Get to the airport early, it’s busy!

— Lisa Farbstein, TSA Spokesperson (@TSA_Northeast) June 25, 2022

 Want your TPG news delivered straight to your inbox each morning? Sign up for our daily newsletter.

This weekend was also a reminder of the current landscape when it comes to air travel. Major U.S. airlines canceled hundreds of flights between Friday and Saturday, led by Delta with over 200 cancellations on Saturday, around 7% of its schedule according to data from FlightAware. The carrier’s largest hub in Atlanta (ATL) saw the most flights canceled, though no single airport experienced disruptions of the scope seen last week at places like New York LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT).

When Delta has run into operational issues in recent weeks, airline officials have pointed to a combination of weather, staffing challenges and air traffic control problems as contributing factors.

With many travelers’ flights already booked for what’s shaping up to be a busier holiday weekend for travel than any in the last two and a half years, there are plenty of passengers eyeing the recent disruptions and wondering how to best prepare.

Travelers walk to their gate inside Terminal D at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia International Airport via Twitter)

More pandemic air travel records could fall

AAA projects more than 3.5 million travelers will fly during the upcoming holiday weekend, between Thursday and Monday.

Despite the large crowds, AAA predicts air travel will actually — by a slim margin — make up the smallest share of overall Fourth of July travel in more than a decade, and suggests passenger concern about the airline operational issues could be a factor. (It also means millions of travelers are driving, despite the continued impact of high gas prices) Still, AAA’s prediction of an average 2.6 million flyers departing per day next weekend would easily top even the busiest air travel days seen in the last week.

Travel booking site Hopper, which analyzes airfare, calls the upcoming holiday weekend the “busiest and most expensive travel weekend in years,” pointing to both the anticipated crowds and the fact that the average airfare for the holiday travel period ($437 for a domestic round trip) was up 45% compared to 2019 prices.

If you’re planning to fly for the holiday weekend, TPG reported in late May, the busiest travel days surrounding Memorial Day weekend were the Thursday and Friday prior to the holiday – a relevant comparison since July 4th falls on a Monday this year.

Related: Avoiding long lines at the airport and during your travels

Spring 2022 on the tarmac at Boston Logan International Airport (BOS). (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

Airlines turn attention to FAA

As the holiday weekend approaches, airlines are calling on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ensure sufficient staffing at its most critical facilities. After airline executives met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg a week prior, Airlines for America, a trade group for the nation’s largest carriers, sent Buttigieg a letter Friday, arguing understaffing at FAA facilities — particularly in Jacksonville — has been “crippling” East Coast operations. Solving air traffic delays has been the subject of much discussion in recent months.

The organization pointed to efforts by airlines in recent weeks to do “everything within their power to deliver a safe and on-time product” during the Fourth of July weekend and the remainder of the summer, including cutting 15% of flights through August and taking steps to make it easier for passengers to make itinerary changes using airline mobile apps.

The FAA responded to Friday’s letter with a statement suggesting U.S. taxpayers deserve to have their expectations met when they buy a ticket after airlines received tens of billions in pandemic relief, the Associated Press reports.

Preparing for the unexpected

There are things you can do now to prepare for the unexpected if you have already booked travel for next weekend.

1. Reserve your airport parking spot in advance

A trend we’ve seen this year – especially in recent weeks – is how quickly airport parking lots can fill up.

#LGA Parking is filling up. Choose the free LGA Link Q70 bus with service to and from the subway.

— LaGuardia Airport. Wear a Face Covering. (@LGAairport) June 25, 2022

Many airports have reservation systems that allow you to book your parking spot in advance of your trip. This can be a good way not just to ensure you don’t have to spend precious pre-flight time searching for a place to park, but also to make sure you know how much you’ll pay for parking.

Read more: Airport parking crisis? How to save while securing a spot

2. Consider packing light so you don’t have to check a bag

There are a number of reasons you might want to stick to carry-on luggage, including helping you avoid what can be a long line to check your bag at the airport. It can also help ensure your luggage arrives with you at your destination in the event your itinerary changes.

Late-arriving luggage at the airport on June 23 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Jonas Walzberg/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Perhaps most importantly right now, it means you’ll have your belongings with you if a leg of your trip gets canceled and you end up having to spend the night in a connecting city like I had to on my last trip. The big caveat, of course: you’ll have to make sure everything in your bag adheres to TSA restrictions. You’ll also want to double check whether your ticket allows for a complimentary full-sized carry-on bag.

Read more 7 steps to take when the airline loses your luggage

3. Download the airline’s app and learn how to navigate it

As I discussed in my account of my travel woes last week, your airline’s app is often your best bet to get your trip back on track when things go wrong. It can offer you easy ways to rebook your canceled or delayed flight with just a few clicks. That’s not to say it will always offer an easy solution; when mass disruptions happen, finding available seats on flights can be a real problem. But in a lot of cases, it’s a much easier and quicker alternative to waiting in line or on hold.

Read more: Even more reasons to download your airline’s app: summer delays and cancellations

A messy departures and arrivals board last week at New York LaGuardia Airport (LGA). (Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

4. Familiarize yourself with protections offered by your credit card or insurance plan

Did you buy travel insurance for your trip? Does one of your travel credit cards offer you reimbursement for expenses incurred due to trip disruption? It could be worth taking a few minutes in advance to learn your benefits so that – in the event you need them – you’re not trying to figure out what’s covered and what’s not in the midst of a stressful situation.

Read more: 4 times your credit card’s travel insurance can help with summer travel woes and 7 times it won’t

A storefront remained temporarily closed June 15 at Raleigh/Durham International Airport (RDU). (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

5. Think about where you’ll eat and drink along the way

Even as airports have gotten many more food locations open when some weren’t even a few weeks ago, there’s still a good chance you could run into long lines at coffee spots or other popular concessionaires, as many try to handle heavy customer traffic without full staffing. Some airline and airport apps offer food-on-the-go options while certain food and beverage places – like certain airport Starbucks locations, for instance – offer mobile ordering options that can help you jump an otherwise lengthy line.

Read more: Your wait for coffee or food at some airports could finally get shorter

Looking ahead to the next holiday weekend

Did you miss out on planning a trip for Memorial Day or the Fourth of July? The next long holiday weekend, of course, is Labor Day.

We’ve seen plenty of examples of prices beginning to drop just after that holiday marks the unofficial end to summer – a reason you might want to wait until then and save money and possibly aggravation at the airport by planning an end-of-season getaway.

If you’re planning to fly that holiday weekend, Hopper says Saturday is generally your best bet for a departure day when it comes to getting a deal for a long weekend getaway. The site noted that when it came to Fourth of July weekend travel, most people booked their flights five to six weeks in advance – in late May or early June so if you haven’t already got something booked, now is a good time to look.

As you can read in this post about the best times to book cheap airfare in 2022, that window – several weeks out – is when, experts say, airlines begin to actively manage their flights, leading to greater fluctuations in prices.

Planes sit in traffic at New York LaGuardia Airport (LGA) on June 16. (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

Despite the recent challenges, the latest passenger traffic numbers are a reminder that airport crowds aren’t going away this summer, particularly as the holiday weekend gets closer.

All the apps and advanced planning in the world can’t remove the sting of frustration most travelers feel when their itinerary gets severely upended. That said, it may be worth heading into your trip prepared as these disruptions could happen along the way.

Featured photo courtesy of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport via Twitter.

Read MoreThe Points Guy