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The travel industry is still in a slump during the holiday season

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Passengers enter a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at O'Hare International Airport on Monday in Chicago, Illinois.

Passengers enter a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at O'Hare International Airport on Monday in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images

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As we mentioned in our conversation with Catherine Rampell and Sudeep Reddy, it has been a difficult year for business. One of the industries hit hardest? Travel. 

We’ve been tracking the downturn in air travel all year … and this Christmas, normally a big travel time, is no exception. TSA reports that yesterday – Christmas Eve – only 850,000 people flew — it was 2.5 million last year. 

And here’s the thing — this is still a lot of travel, given the risk travel poses for increasing COVID-19 spread, and the CDC’s repeatedly urging Americans not to travel for the holidays. But it’s also not nearly enough to really help the struggling travel industry — hotels and airlines and the like. 

Darby Meegan was on the road first thing today, on his way to visit family. 

“Good morning, Mitchell. We are in Sheridan, Wyoming, right now on our way from Spokane, Washington, to Crystal Beach, Texas,” he said.

He’s one of 84 million Americans that AAA estimates are traveling during the holidays this year. 

“Twenty-two-hundred-and-something miles, yeah, it’s a little bit of a hike. I’m not driving, my wife is thankfully,” he said.

So — they’re being safe behind the wheel.

And, they’re trying to be safe about COVID-19 exposure. Meegan said they quarantined for several weeks before hitting the road on Christmas Eve.

“We discussed AirBnbs, hotels, and we decided we’re going to sleep in the van on the ground, to try to isolate from people as much as possible, and just gas stations for the bathroom,” Meegan said, adding they debated whether to even make the trip at all, and potentially put elderly relatives at risk:

“The CDC guidelines and what’s going on, there is this level of guilt, we do realize that we could infect someone by traveling,” he said.

Now, this is not cut-and-dried. The risk of spreading COVID-19 depends on how people travel, and what precautions they take, said University of Minnesota public-health professor Ryan Demmer.

“People who actually travel, if they did so extremely safely and were mostly driving, not coming into contact with other individuals, they may contribute very little to transmission,” he said.

But, he added, there’s no way to completely eliminate heightened risk from travel.

“Big picture, traveling and going out and about in these times on average is going to increase risk, because it creates the potential for more person-to-person interactions,” he said.

And a lot of Americans have taken public-health warnings about travel to heart. AAA predicts holiday travel will be down 30 percent compared to last year. Air travel’s down by more than half.

“Anybody goes anywhere at all it will be by car, for the most part, and it will probably be shorter distances and to family. The big warm weather beach vacation trips are probably going to be put off. You know, that beach is still going to be there next year,” said Andrew Gross of AAA.

But, your favorite beach hotel or resort might not be there. 

Chip Rogers, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said many hotels are in danger of foreclosure right now. In terms of hotel industry workers, “we’re looking at a permanent reduction of around 25 percent of the workforce we had starting 2020. With no assistance or no dramatic change in the marketplace, between now and the spring, you could lose another 25 percent.”

And by change in the marketplace, he means people feeling safe enough to stay in hotels again when they travel … once the threat of COVID-19 has diminished. 

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