Wisconsin Public Radio

Big Hike in Holiday Air Travel Expected

Up 50% at Mitchell. Will vaccine requirements for workers lead to delays?

By , Wisconsin Public Radio - Nov 15th, 2021 11:37 am
Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. Image from the airport.

Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. Image from the airport.

With COVID-19 vaccines widely available, Wisconsin airports are preparing for a busy holiday travel season compared to 2020, and officials with the federal Transportation Security Administration said they don’t anticipate disruptions.

Already this year, Dane County Regional Airport has seen traffic increase every month since the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available earlier this year. During the upcoming Thanksgiving week, the number of flights will be up 50 percent compared to last year at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, said marketing coordinator Christie Green.

While the number of flights will be higher at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport this year, they’ll still be down 7 percent compared to the same week in 2019, she said.

As the volume of travelers appears to be returning to pre-pandemic levels, airlines are resuming routes and adding new ones, including direct flights during the holidays from Milwaukee to Cancun and Los Angeles on Southwest Airlines, and nonstop service to three Florida cities on Spirit Airlines beginning this week, Green said.

The Thanksgiving holiday coincides with the start of a vaccine requirement for federal airport security officers. Those TSA workers must be vaccinated by Nov. 22 unless the Biden administration honors a request from the American Federation of Government Employees asking to delay the deadline. Union representatives cited a confusing “double standard” in a letter to White House officials, with federal contractors not required to be vaccinated until early 2022.

TSA was unable to share any data on how many officers are vaccinated, but public affairs specialist Jessica Mayle said the agency doesn’t “anticipate any disruptions because of the vaccination requirement.” The compliance rate for TSA staff is very high, she said.

“We’re working diligently to implement our vaccine requirement, including by promoting vaccination and ensuring every TSA employee is uploading that information,” she said. “We have a system for employees to upload their status with their vaccine cards, and we’re just making sure we’re promoting that process.”

Marty Piette, airport director at Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, said the airport’s relatively small size means even on a busy day, travelers are unlikely to wait long at TSA checkpoints.

“We are in constant communication with our TSA stakeholders just to keep apprised of the situation,” he said. “But from a staffing standpoint, we’re going to be OK here.”

Still, airport officials are encouraging travels to arrive early — at least two hours in Milwaukee and 90 minutes in Madison. At Mitchell Airport, Green recommends travelers book their parking in advance.

Traffic at Dane County Regional Airport is down about 40 percent compared to before the pandemic, but the airport has seen spikes this year around holidays, like spring break and Labor Day, said Michael Riechers, director of marketing and communications. Airport officials are optimistic that traffic will continue to increase, he said.

They said leisure travel has returned more quickly than business trips. Foreign travelers account for about 20 percent of the business through Green Bay, and United States borders reopened last week for vaccinated travelers, Piette said.

TSA and airport officials emphasized that the federal mask mandate is still in effect. It’s always a good idea to travel with an extra mask in your carry-on, Mayle said, and she encouraged travelers to visit the TSA website for information on which items must be checked.

“If you spend a little extra time at the beginning when you’re packing, it saves so much time in the line,” she said.

Piette advised travelers to download their airline’s app to stay informed of their flight status. Recently major carriers like Southwest and American airlines have experienced mass delays and cancelations. While those problems haven’t had a major impact at Austin Straubel, staffing issues could affect connecting airports, he said.

“No airport is immune from the staffing shortages we’re seeing nationwide,” Riechers said.

He encouraged travelers to pack their patience — but not their wrapped holiday gifts. TSA agents don’t like having to unwrap presents for screening, he said.

Listen to the WPR report here.

TSA doesn’t anticipate holiday travel delays at Wisconsin airports due to vaccine mandate was originally published by the Wisconsin Public Radio.

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