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TSA sees holiday air travel increase that worries COVID-19 experts

A checkpoint at LaGuardia Airport on Dec. 24.

A checkpoint at LaGuardia Airport on Dec. 24. Credit: Bloomberg/Angus Mordant

More than one million people nationwide passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints each day over the weekend, reflecting a jump in holiday air travel that public health experts predict will cause COVID-19 infections to spike.

Security workers screened 1,128,800 passengers on Saturday and another 1,284,600 on Sunday, TSA statistics show.

Those numbers are still about half what they were last year, as the pandemic continues to keep would-be travelers safely at home. But they’re well above what’s been typical during the pandemic. In October, for example, some 827,000 people passed through TSA checkpoints on average each day.

A similar increase in air travel was reported locally as well. Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma saw 36 inbound and outbound flights on Saturday, airport Commissioner Shelley LaRose-Arken said Monday. That’s up from an average 20 daily arrivals and departures in September, but traffic at the airport overall is well below last year’s levels, she said.

Lindsay Kryzak, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, did not provide the number of passengers at John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport over the Christmas weekend. But last week the authority projected 886,700 passengers would pass through the two airports from Dec. 21 to Jan. 4 — a decrease of 75% from the same period last year.

"It’s been really quiet," said Donna Hampton, a security guard at JFK who worked at the airport through the weekend. "I don’t know the last time there was a full flight here."

Despite the low levels of air travel compared to last year, the increase over the weekend augurs poorly for the trajectory of the pandemic, public health experts said.

"The spike in cases in a couple weeks due to Christmas is probably going to be the worst and darkest days of the pandemic," said David Freedman, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at University of Alabama at Birmingham, who specializes in travel medicine.

Cases will likely rise on Long Island as well, Freedman predicted.

"It’s going to happen everywhere," he said.

But that’s probably because of the social gatherings that accompanied the holiday, not necessarily the air travel itself, Freedman said.

Joseph Allen, a public health professor at Harvard University, said good ventilation on planes, paired with face coverings, makes airplanes safer during the pandemic than many might think.

"When you combine the environmental controls with universal masking on airplanes, turns out that the risk of catching the virus on the airplane is low," he said.

But air travel still poses a risk. People can unwittingly bring the virus to their destinations, Allen said, as time spent getting to and moving through airports presents new opportunities to catch the virus.

Freedman also noted the risk on planes depends in part on how passengers behave — like whether they take off their masks to eat midflight or crowd the aisle when waiting to disembark.

Allen encouraged people only to fly if they absolutely must.

"We finally have a light at the end of the tunnel here with the vaccines," he said. "It’s just prudent to do everything you can to stay out of this wave."

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