Officials at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are gearing up for a brisk holiday travel season this Christmas, even though the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge throughout the state.
“The airport is ready,” said Martin Robinson, the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) federal security director for Minnesota, at a news conference Tuesday. “People are anxious to get out and about and want to travel. They’re more comfortable traveling now there’s a vaccine.”
More than 109 million Americans nationwide are expected to travel between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2 for the upcoming holiday, a 34% increase from 2020 and very close to pre-pandemic levels, according to AAA. About 6 million of them will fly to their destinations, making for a 184% increase over last year’s airline bookings, AAA noted.
But while millions are expected to take to the skies in coming weeks, the new omicron variant can make international travel, in particular, complicated as many countries have placed restrictions or outright bans on travelers.
Thanksgiving saw travelers crowding MSP and airports nationwide, but Robinson said Christmas travel, while heavy, tends to be more spread out over several days. With the actual holiday occurring on a Saturday this year, some people may opt to fly either before Christmas or go afterward.
The busiest travel days tend to be those leading up to Christmas, said Roy Fuhrmann, chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates MSP. On those busy days, TSA screenings at both MSP terminals could reach 36,000 to 37,000 travelers daily compared with pre-pandemic highs of 43,000 to 45,000 people, Robinson said.
Airport officials said many travelers during the pandemic tend to wait until the last minute to book their flights, so a better picture of the impending throng will be clearer as Christmas approaches. That’s partly because most airlines have waived fees for changing flights, Fuhrmann said.
For those traveling out of MSP, about 83% of the airport’s retail and food offerings will be open at least part-time, Fuhrmann said. Food delivery from 15 vendors to a traveler’s gate is available through the AtYourGate app, and quick pick-up from participating restaurants is offered through the Grab app.
Masks are still required at airports and on aircraft, and MSP continues to maintain some 250 hand sanitizer stations throughout both terminals.
As federal employees, TSA workers are required to be vaccinated unless exempted for religious or medical reasons. Robinson said at least 86% of TSA’s 600-plus workers at MSP are vaccinated. Staffing levels at MSP are “good,” he said, but he added that TSA is hiring employees with starting pay of $21.29 an hour.
The Minnesota Department of Health maintains a free COVID testing site at the airport, with results available within 48 hours. In addition, there’s a Wandertest rapid COVID testing site aimed at travelers, volunteers and employees located in the Gold Ramp at Terminal 1 that offers rapid tests with results in about an hour.
“For the most part, people are feeling comfortable traveling, with masking, social distancing and hand sanitizers,” Fuhrmann said.