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US air travel reached post-March peak on day before Christmas Eve, TSA data shows

TSA data showed that some 1,191,123 travelers passed through airport checkpoints nationwide on Wednesday, the largest number of people since March 16.
Image: Travel Increases Before Christmas Holiday Despite Pandemic Warnings
Passengers wait for their luggage at O'Hare International Airport on December 23, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised Americans to stay home this holiday season. But the day before Christmas Eve, more than 1.1 million people boarded airplanes — the greatest number of air travelers since March, according to data compiled by the Transportation Security Administration.

TSA data showed that some 1,191,123 travelers passed through airport checkpoints nationwide on Wednesday, the largest number of people since March 16, when more than 1.2 million people got on planes as the coronavirus was first taking hold in the United States.

The recent trend lines suggest some Americans are not following CDC advisories. From last Friday to Sunday, a combined 3.2 million people boarded planes, according to agency data — more than 1 million daily passengers.

"If you choose to travel this holiday, please wear a mask," TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in a tweet announcing the apparent uptick in pandemic-era air travel.

But overall, air travel remains lower than years past. The day before Christmas Eve last year, for example, saw close to 2 million people — 1,937,235 — cross airport checkpoints, according to the TSA.

The recent rise in the number of travelers echoes a similar increase around Thanksgiving. The day before that holiday, 1,070,967 people went through TSA checkpoints. It was part of a spike in travel in the seven days leading up to Thanksgiving that brought more than 6.8 million people to airports.

A traveler receives a a temperature check before checking in for a China Airlines flight at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) amid a COVID-19 surge in Southern California on December 22, 2020.Mario Tama / Getty Images

In recent weeks, the CDC has encouraged Americans to reconsider holiday travel plans, highlighting the health risks associated with commercial transportation and gathering with groups of people outside your immediate family.

"Travel may increase your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19," the CDC says in a message on its website. "CDC continues to recommend postponing travel and staying home, as this is the best way to protect yourself and others this year."

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The American Automobile Association, for its part, said earlier this month that it expected most Americans to stay home instead of traveling over the holidays.

In a news release Dec. 15, the AAA said it expected up to 84.5 million Americans could travel between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3 — a decrease of at least 29 percent compared to last year's figures.