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Air travelers are breaking pandemic-era records this Thanksgiving

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The pandemic is definitely not over, but with most people vaccinated, it's widely expected that a lot more folks will be traveling this day before Thanksgiving than traveled a year ago. Hey, Rachel, how was the airport yesterday when you were there?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah, I flew back across the country yesterday. And before I went to the airport, I did some deep breathing, some stretching and put on my running shoes. And let's just say I needed all three to navigate that chaos.

INSKEEP: Really? So lots of crowds were there?

MARTIN: Yup.

INSKEEP: Wow. Well, let's talk about this with Washington Post transportation reporter Ian Duncan. Ian, good morning.

IAN DUNCAN: Hi there. How you doing?

INSKEEP: What's today looking like, having had this glimpse of yesterday?

DUNCAN: Yeah, it's already starting to look pretty busy. And TSA is already saying at one of the airports in the Washington area that there's sort of people coming in. It's starting to get busy. And that's been the story of the week so far. TSA said there's been 2 million people every day since at least Friday, kind of setting records for the pandemic. So definitely expect to see crowds when you get to the airport...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DUNCAN: ...If you're traveling.

INSKEEP: And now we're heading to the biggest travel day of the year, the biggest travel weekend of the year. And I'm just thinking, the airlines parked a heck of a lot of planes during the pandemic. Are they back to full strength and able to handle this capacity?

DUNCAN: So the airlines say they're definitely ready. They've been trying to staff up. They've been offering overtime to their employees, trying to make sure they have what they need. But we did see that when there were some busy weekends over the summer and early fall that the airlines really struggled in some cases and had these crazy disruptions with lots and lots of flights canceled. And so that is one of the questions that's sort of lingering over this is, are there going to be any big interruptions to their services?

INSKEEP: Yeah. I'm thinking not only about the difficulty of being a flight attendant at the moment, with all the stories we've heard about violence and so forth, but just the general difficulty of filling all jobs in the great resignation. Are there enough flight attendants? Are there enough TSA security guards? Are there enough people at Quiznos or whatever place might be in the airport? Are things staffed?

DUNCAN: Yeah. Everyone who works in the industry is definitely sort of talking about filling - difficulties filling certain jobs. One - we had one - shuttle bus drivers that get you from the kind of far-flung economy lots - like, they've been in short supply, for example. And that's just kind of the story across the industry. And the airlines are starting to bring people back. They've had people who've been out on leave and stuff. And so they say, again, that they're ready. And it will just be sort of a big test for them whether they can handle this volume.

INSKEEP: Well, now I'm very interested about another factor here because the trend in wages in airlines over decades has been down, down, down. It was a very highly paid sort of union job in many cases and has become much less protected and much less lucrative. Have salaries in the airlines had to come back up in order to restaff?

DUNCAN: They've been relying on overtime for a while to kind of keep up with their schedules, and so that sort of is extra money in people's pockets. And they're really leaning on that now. You know, they can't just bring people in off the street for a lot of these jobs, so they have to find ways to maximize the staff that they do have, and that often means offering extra money.

INSKEEP: Are you traveling this weekend?

DUNCAN: I'm not. I'm hosting people at my house, fortunately.

INSKEEP: OK. Smart man. Smart man. What advice would you give to people who are traveling?

DUNCAN: I would say book a parking spot. That seems to be something that is filling up. Just get yourself familiar again if you haven't been through TSA in a couple of years - all those rules that you have to follow. And you can bring, like, hand sanitizer through, but other liquids, it's really restricted. People might just not have remembered all of that. And the other thing is just wear a mask. Like, that's in effect across the whole system.

INSKEEP: There you go.

DUNCAN: And some do that.

INSKEEP: There you go. Washington Post transportation reporter Ian Duncan, thanks.

DUNCAN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.