Midstate travel declines by more than pre-Thanksgiving expectations

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Passenger counts at Harrisburg International Airport from Tuesday through Sunday — the days encompassing most of the Thanksgiving travel period — declined by 66 percent compared to the equivalent days in 2019, according to airport figures.

Final figures for Monday won’t be available until at least Tuesday but are unlikely to significantly move that 66 percent figure, which compares with a 61 percent decline at TSA airport checkpoints nationwide for the same figure.

Here’s a day-by-day comparison at HIA for the days surrounding Thanksgiving each year:

Day20192020Decline
Tuesday4,6791,646-65%
Wednesday5,2191,726-67%
Thursday (Thanksgiving Day)1,875664-65%
Friday2,8001,192-57%
Saturday5,5321,660-70%
Sunday5,5831,926-66%
Tues.-Sun. total25,6888,814-66%

The declines were driven by a lighter flight schedule, as expected, but also by lighter-than-initially-expected “load factors,” in airline parlance — that’s essentially the occupancy rate of flights.

Airport leaders originally expected load factors in the 70 percent range. Instead, flights were barely half full, likely influenced by surging COVID-19 statistics in recent weeks and admonitions by health officials not to travel. United Airlines, for one, said in advance of Thanksgiving that customers were taking advantage of flexible policies to back out of holiday travel plans they had made.

Similarly, road travel appears to have declined by more than initially forecast. Arrivalist, a firm that compiles information based on aggregated GPS data, said Monday car trips during the Thanksgiving period declined by 35 percent nationally and 50 percent in Pennsylvania (see below).

Although not using the same methodology, AAA — in early November — forecast a national decline of just 4 percent. As the surge worsened, AAA later said actual figures would likely show a greater decline.

Health officials issued the same travel advice for upcoming holidays as they had issued for Thanksgiving: Don’t.

“Our recommendation for the upcoming holidays is to please stay home,” Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, said Monday at a media briefing. “And I know that is a tremendous sacrifice for Christmas, for Chanukah, for Kwanzaa and for New Year’s.”

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