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COVID, winter surge don’t deter Southern Californians from holiday travels

Holiday travelers, it seems, won’t be deterred.

But a trio of obstacles — COVID-19’s ongoing winter surge, ferocious storms and inflation — are doing their best to make holiday trips unpleasant or, in some cases, imperil them entirely.

Nevertheless, airports and highways will likely be jammed in the coming days, with the Automobile Club of Southern California projecting near-record state and national travel rates, and the number people across the Southland hopping on flights for the holidays hitting pre-pandemic levels.

More than 112 million people around the country, in fact, were estimated to travel during Christmas and other winter holidays this year, according to AAA. That would mark a 3.3% increase from last year, though overall travel nationwide would still be down 6% from 2019.

“Consumers are embracing the fact that most domestic and international travel restrictions have been lifted,” said Heather Felix, the Auto Club’s vice president for travel products and services, “and they are continuing this year’s trend of making up for lost time with family and friends during the holidays.”

Holiday travel came to a halt in 2020, with the pandemic’s first year marked by a deadly winter surge that hasn’t been topped the since. But last year, despite a winter surge that caused cases and hospitalizations to spike, travel began to rebound.

And this year, it seems as if folks won’t let the pandemic stop them from traveling — despite the coronavirus being just one of three viruses spiking this winter.

Coronavirus cases and deaths nationwide have increased in recent weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And high rates of seasonal flu and respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, has contributed to stressing the health care system.

In Los Angeles County, new cases have finally begun to ebb, with the Department of Public Health reporting on Thursday that there have been about 2,600 new cases a day, on average, the past week — a 12% decline from the previous week. And even though DPH reported 3,084 new infections on Thursday, the county has moved back to the CDC’s medium-transmission tier.

Still, Barbara Ferrer, LA County’s director of Public Health,  urged residents to “layer in protections over the next few weeks,” such as wearing masks in crowded indoor settings, staying home when sick and getting tested before attending large gatherings.

The Transportation Security Administration no longer requires masks. But health officials around the region, including Ferrer, have repeatedly advised caution while traveling. And airports, including Los Angeles Internationai Airport and John Wayne Airport, in Orange County, have COVID-19 testing available.

“It’s important as we enter this holiday season,” Dr. Anissa Davis, Long Beach’s city health officer, said in a statement earlier this month, “to layer as many strategies as possible in order to avoid acquisition and transmission of the various respiratory viruses currently circulating.”

And one of the most-common refrains from health officials is to stay home when sick — which could nix a holiday trip at the last moment.

But illnesses aren’t the only nemesis for those looking to get away.

There’s also a tempest.

A massive storm has hit much of the nation, placing around 190 million people under some type of winter weather advisory, the National Weather Service said Wednesday.

LAX had the usual heavy numbers of people traveling on Thursday December 22, 2022. Brutal weather, however, just may derail many of those travel plans. Forecasters predict an onslaught of heavy snow, ice, flooding and powerful winds from Thursday to Saturday in a broad swath of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. (Photo by contributing photographer Chuck Bennett)

LAX had the usual heavy numbers of people traveling on Thursday December 22, 2022. Brutal weather, however, just may derail many of those travel plans. Forecasters predict an onslaught of heavy snow, ice, flooding and powerful winds from Thursday to Saturday in a broad swath of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. (Photo by contributing photographer Chuck Bennett)

LAX had the usual heavy numbers of people traveling on Thursday December 22, 2022. Brutal weather, however, just may derail many of those travel plans. Forecasters predict an onslaught of heavy snow, ice, flooding and powerful winds from Thursday to Saturday in a broad swath of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. (Photo by contributing photographer Chuck Bennett)

LAX had the usual heavy numbers of people traveling on Thursday December 22, 2022. Brutal weather, however, just may derail many of those travel plans. Forecasters predict an onslaught of heavy snow, ice, flooding and powerful winds from Thursday to Saturday in a broad swath of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. (Photo by contributing photographer Chuck Bennett)

LAX had the usual heavy numbers of people traveling on Thursday December 22, 2022. Brutal weather, however, just may derail many of those travel plans. Forecasters predict an onslaught of heavy snow, ice, flooding and powerful winds from Thursday to Saturday in a broad swath of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. (Photo by contributing photographer Chuck Bennett)

LAX had the usual heavy numbers of people traveling on Thursday December 22, 2022. Brutal weather, however, just may derail many of those travel plans. Forecasters predict an onslaught of heavy snow, ice, flooding and powerful winds from Thursday to Saturday in a broad swath of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. (Photo by contributing photographer Chuck Bennett)

LAX had the usual heavy numbers of people traveling on Thursday December 22, 2022. Brutal weather, however, just may derail many of those travel plans. Forecasters predict an onslaught of heavy snow, ice, flooding and powerful winds from Thursday to Saturday in a broad swath of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. (Photo by contributing photographer Chuck Bennett)

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The Christmas weekend, meanwhile, could be the coldest in decades. Forecasters predict an onslaught of heavy snow, ice, flooding and powerful winds from Thursday to Saturday in a broad swath of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. A surge of Arctic air will follow.

Those flying across the country from Southern California were best off leaving before Thursday.

But now, it’s too late.

So those hoping to take to the skies shouldn’t be surprised if they get grounded.

Southwest Airlines, for example, said it had canceled 500 of its 4,000 scheduled flights nationally on Thursday and Friday, with the company adding that it wants to maintain safe operations for passengers and crew members.

At least 219 flights into or out of Denver International Airport — a major hub for national travel — were also expected to be canceled Thursday, according to flight tracking company FlightAware. Snow, gusty winds and freezing temperatures pummeled the Mile High City the day before.

FlightAware was also expecting at least 364 flights to be canceled Thursday at O’Hare and Midway airports in Chicago. Earlier this week, those two airports said they had 350 pieces of snow removal equipment and 400,000 gallons of pavement de-icing fluid on hand for the storm.

Delta, American, United, Frontier, Alaska, Southwest and other airlines, meanwhile, were waiving change fees and offering travelers the option of choosing new flights to avoid the bad weather.

And if the storm wasn’t bad enough, air travelers are also dealing with increased costs — causing folks to find ways to cut back.

The average round-trip airfare rose 22%, to $397, in the second quarter of this year — the most recent period available — according to U.S. government data. That was higher than overall inflation nationwide, which peaked at 9% in June.

In a recent survey, market research company Morning Consult found that 28% of U.S. travelers were planning a one-day trip for the holidays, up from 14% last year. There was also an uptick in the number of people planning to stay with friends or family instead of at hotels, with higher prices potentially being a factor.

Three-in-four travelers actually said their budgets to get away this season are similar or lower than last year, according to the 2022 holiday survey from Deloitte, an international financial services network that is considered among the “big four” accounting firms globally. Finances have also become the biggest roadblock for many, with 37% of survey respondents citing money as the primary reason for not traveling, compared to 18% who were primarily concerned about COVID-19 or other illnesses.

Yet, none of those challenges has dampened overall enthusiasm for holiday traveling.

AAA, in fact, has projected year-end holiday travel will be the second busiest on record for the state and the third busiest nationally.

The Auto Club estimated 9.2 million Southern Californians would travel this winter holiday season, 4% more than last year and 1% less than in 2019.

Southern California residents’ top five destinations during the holiday travel period are Las Vegas, San Diego, Mexico, the Grand Canyon/Sedona, Arizona, and California’s Central Coast, according to a survey of Auto Club travel advisors.

A projected 8.1 million people are expected to travel by car, a 2% increase from last year and a 1% decrease from 2019.

Motorists will get a slight break on gas this holiday season, AAA said, with prices “rapidly declining in recent weeks” Still, whatever break motorists are getting is relative — with gas prices likely to the second-most expensive on record for this time of year, AAA said.

Another 771,000 Southern Californians, meanwhile, are expected to fly, 14% more than last year and 1% more than in 2019. And 262,000 people will travel on buses, trains, cruise ships or via other means, according to AAA; that represents a 21% increase from last year, though still 5% below 2019.

Airports around Southern Caifornia, for their parts, are predicting a hectic few days.

The Long Beach Airport, for example, estimated that it’d get close to as many passengers this holiday season as it did in 2019. About 72,000 travelers were set to move through the airport during peak travel weeks this month, with more than 12,000 per day expected on the busiest days.

Of the 43,000 available seats on 46 daily flights out of Long Beach, the airport projected an average of more than 82% to be full in December, compared to an average of 70% for the same period last year. On some days, they expect 97% of seats to be full, with strong demand likely going into early January.

John Wayne Airport is experiencing increased holiday travel as well, spokesperson AnnaSophia Servin said by email Thursday, though data won’t be available until after the holiday.

Ontario International Airport, meanwhile, expects to see more than 300,000 passengers through Jan. 4, per the airport, with busiest days being the Thursday before Christmas, as well as Dec. 28 and 29.

And then there’s the biggest of them all — LAX.

LAX has been drawing about 200,000 passengers per day since mid-December, according to the airport, and projects that the volume will continue through Jan. 3, with peak days expected to be Friday, Dec. 23, and Jan. 2 — which also happens to be when the Rose Parade is happening.

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Vehicle traffic around the airport’s Central Terminal Area surged this week, with as many as 89,000 cars traversing it daily — 12% more than the average during normal times.

Justin Erbacci, CEO of Los Angeles World Airports, recently offered advice to those traveling from LAX.

“We ask that you come to the airport prepared by planning your parking ahead of time and arriving early,” he said in a statement last week, “especially if you are traveling with us on one of our peak travel days.”

That seems like wise advice. After all, a trio of nemeses — COVID-19, a winter storm and high prices — don’t seem as if they will keep people from traveling.

But in Southern California, there’s always there’s an even bigger nemesis for travelers: gridlock.

The Associated Press, City News Service and staff writer Chris Haire contributed to this report.

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