The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is expecting the year to end on a strong note, as travelers flock to the airport during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays despite a rash of flight cancellations and the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The number of travelers clearing security checkpoints at MSP will nearly double on peak days when compared with last year’s levels, according to the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which owns and operates the airport.
About 6 million people nationwide will fly to their holiday destinations, a 184% increase over last year’s airline bookings, according to AAA. Weary of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say people yearn to travel this holiday season to see family and friends.
“I’m not worried about COVID or crowds,” said Chaly Yang of St. Paul, who was heading to Seattle and then California to visit family Friday morning. His biggest worry: Mistakenly reading his travel itinerary and arriving four hours before his flight.
The busiest day at MSP for the upcoming holiday will be Sunday, with about 35,000 passengers clearing Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints, according to booking forecasts. A close second will be Monday.
By comparison, the same days last year saw more than 21,000 passengers clearing security, far below the daily pre-pandemic peaks that reached as high as 46,000 daily passengers, the MAC said in a news release.
While thousands of travelers globally received notice that their flights were cancelled on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day due to a spike in omicron cases among airline employees, MSP didn’t appear to be hard hit. By mid-day Friday, just 21 arriving and departing flights at MSP had been cancelled, and 30 flights delayed.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s one flight or 1,000 if it’s your flight that’s cancelled,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research. “This is just the latest wrinkle we’ve seen added to the challenge of travel in the age of COVID.
“It’s as if the Grinch took over the airline business right now,” Harteveldt added.
Another wrinkle: COVID testing requirements for travelers heading abroad, or for those interested in being extra careful when celebrating holiday tidings with loved ones.
COVID-19 testing is available before or after flights at MSP. While the Minnesota Department of Health maintains a free COVID testing site at the airport, with results available within 48 hours, the site was closed Christmas Eve and slated to be shuttered Christmas Day, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
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 results — for a fee — in about an hour.
Sam Crain of Minneapolis was waiting for the results of a COVID test Friday at the Wandertest site before flights to Manchester, United Kingdom. Crain’s ultimate destination is the Isle of Mull off the coast of Scotland.
The testing requirements for international travel didn’t faze Crain: “It’s not a big deal if this is what we have to do to travel.”
Beyond the number of people leaving from the Twin Cities, the MAC said the airport should see similar increases in travelers with connecting flights who clear security at other airports.
“We’re expecting a very positive push in travel demand as we end 2021,” said Brian Ryks, CEO of the MAC, in a statement. “There will be extremely busy periods over the next two weeks in our terminals and on our roadways, so we encourage travelers to take steps in advance to be prepared.”
The projections for holiday travel at MSP are in line with the airport’s monthly passenger boardings, which showed a 75% recovery in October, compared with the same period of 2019.
Airlines serving MSP are now operating 200 routes, which the MAC considers a “pandemic-era milestone.” Several new winter vacation destinations were recently added from MSP, including Jackson Hole, Wyo., West Palm Beach, Palm Springs, Belize, St. Thomas, and Aruba. Average daily departures for December are 376, compared with 317 in December 2020.
Federal regulations still call for travelers to wear a mask while at MSP terminals and aboard aircraft. The airport’s Travel Confidently program includes frequent cleaning, more than 250 hand sanitizers throughout the airport and about 200 protective barriers at major passenger interaction points. Roughly 84% of MAC employees are vaccinated.
About 83% of the airport’s retail and food concessions are open at least part time, according to the MAC. Passengers can use their mobile devices to order food from 15 venues for pickup or delivery at their gate in Terminal 1.
To avoid traffic snarls that stretch out to Hwy. 5, MAC officials advise that motorists can use both levels of Terminal 1 roadways for picking up or dropping off passengers.
The upper-level departures roadway can be used to pick up passengers, especially if they didn’t check luggage. The lower-level arrivals roadway can be used to drop off passengers, as well.
Travelers can also get vaccinated for COVID-19 at two sites within the airport with an appointment — post-security in Terminal 1 and pre-security in Terminal 2.