Thanksgiving week at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport might not be as busy as the Monday after the Formula One race weekend in October, airport officials have said, but that will be little consolation as you're standing in line with more than 30,000 other travelers this week. Here are some tips to help you navigate the holiday crowds:
Why is the airport so crowded now?
Citing "increased vaccination rates and pent-up demand due to many postponing their holiday travel plans from last year," airport officials said in a statement that until Nov. 29, travelers should "expect a significantly busier than usual terminal experience and to plan accordingly when heading to the airport."
If you had to travel through the airport last month, you might have already seen how crowded it can get.
"We just had our busiest day ever following this year’s Formula One race, with 35,298 passengers," said Sam Haynes, an airport spokeswoman. "So we have had a good chance recently to stress test our systems heading into the holiday."
How many will travel through the airport?
"While we don't have a complete picture of the exact numbers yet, we are anticipating it to possibly be our busiest Thanksgiving on record this year," Haynes said. "The nationwide trend for forward bookings around this Thanksgiving holiday are up about 3.2% from 2019 (pre-pandemic) levels, and we expect to see similar trends in demand."
For context, Haynes said, the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019 was the airport's eighth-busiest day ever and busiest Thanksgiving-related travel day ever, with 29,697 passengers.
Passenger numbers typically start climbing the Friday before Thanksgiving as Central Texas travelers begin to head out of town, Haynes said. The airport's early projections show that Sunday and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving will be its busiest days.
"The Sunday and Mondays after the holiday are also anticipated to be busy, with those travelers who came into Austin for Thanksgiving departing town," she said.
How is the airport gearing up for crowds?
Haynes said the airport has reconfigured the lines leading into the Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, and "we have been working with our airlines and TSA partners to increase staffing levels and operation hours."
"TSA has made changes to their operations to expedite screening, such as use of canines, which allows passengers to keep their shoes on and can significantly speed up the screening process," Haynes said.
What are the COVID-19 rules?
The airport wants to warn travelers who might not have flown in a while — particularly those flying with children — to familiarize themselves with some of the rules regarding COVID-19.
Inside both the main Barbara Jordan Terminal and the South Terminal, face masks are required for travelers who are more than 2 years old. The TSA has extended the face mask requirement across all airports, train stations and bus terminals throughout the United States until Jan. 18.
What should you do before coming to the airport?
Airport officials recommend that you:
• Bring a mask.
• Allow plenty of time for parking, returning a rental car, checking luggage, obtaining a boarding pass and passing through security.
• Contact the airline directly before arriving at the airport if you need to arrange for wheelchair service at the terminal.
• Plan ahead for onsite parking because spaces in the Blue and Red garages are expected to fill up quickly. Travelers should visit ABIAParking.com to reserve a space and check for parking availability in real time.
What about security lines?
According to the airport, the TSA recommends that travelers arrive at least three hours early for all flights, including those with TSA PreCheck and Clear.
The airport's security screening checkpoints open at 3:30 a.m., with TSA PreCheck and Clear screening available at Checkpoints 1 and 2.
Peak passenger traffic times are 5 to 8 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., airport officials say.
Any other tips?
• If you are getting dropped off in the morning, the airport allows you to use both the upper and lower curbsides. From the lower level, travelers can use escalators or elevators to get to ticketing counters and security lines.
• If you are taking Thanksgiving side dishes with you or bringing back leftovers, the items must adhere to TSA rules about liquids: Any food items that could be considered liquid, such as gravy or cranberry sauce, should be securely packed in checked luggage. The carry-on limit for liquids is 3.4 ounces.
• Speaking of luggage, firearms are prohibited at passenger screening checkpoints and in any carry-ons. Possession of firearms at checkpoints may result in arrest.
The TSA has a full list of banned and permitted items in carry-on baggage at TSA.gov.
• Behave yourself. TSA Administrator David Pekoske, appearing on NBC's “Today” last week, said he remains “very concerned” about the issue of misbehaving passengers as incidents on flights have continued.
“The level of unruly behavior is much higher than I've ever seen it,” he said.
The FAA says it has referred 37 cases involving unruly airline passengers to the FBI for possible criminal prosecution since the number of disruptions on flights began to spike in January.
Any weather delays expected?
The National Weather Service's extended forecast for Austin calls for a mostly rain-free week leading up to Thanksgiving, so if flights get delayed or canceled, it probably won't be because of local conditions. A dry cold front Sunday will keep daytime temperatures below normal heading into next week, but Thanksgiving Day (as of Friday) has a 50% chance of rain with a seasonable high near 73.
If you're flying to other parts of the country, the picture might not be as bright. AccuWeather forecasters are worried about the effects of "an upper-level disturbance that was way out over the northern Canada Rockies as of Friday."
"AccuWeather meteorologists expect that potent piece of energy to dive down over American airspace as it moves to the east and then develops into a winter storm over the Midwest this weekend," the forecasters said.
In the upper Midwest, "the gusts and associated turbulence could be significant enough to cause flight delays and lead to the risk of cancellations at some of the major and secondary airport hubs," according to AccuWeather.
For a stretch of the Interstate 95 corridor, including cities from Washington to New York, "rainfall may cause localized travel slowdowns on Monday, and lingering wind could disrupt air travel and cause hazards for motorists in the days leading up to Thanksgiving," they said.
This article contains material from The Associated Press.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: What holiday travelers should know before navigating Austin's airport