Holiday travel threatens COVID-19 spikes now, but analysts expect big rebound later in 2021

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- Travel during the holidays continues to take off to levels not seen since the start of the pandemic and in the short term that may not be good news.

Long term, however, analysts predict a robust recovery in the industry because of pent up demand and a renewed effort to attract couples, families and leisure travelers.

"TSA screened over 1 million passengers the past four days of the Christmas break," Clint Henderson, Senior News Editor at The Points Guy, a leading travel website and blog, tells ABC11. "In the worst of the pandemic, they were only screening 90,000. That's a pretty big rebound, but if you compare that to before the pandemic - that was 2 million a day."

Henderson has written extensively about how and when American travelers can take off again safely, and predicts a significant spike in demand in the second half of 2021.

"If you're a consumer, this is the first time in my life we've seen the consumer in the driver's seat," he explains. "The airlines have always relied on the business traveler to make money. Leisure travelers were an afterthought, the fillers of a coach seat. Now that's completely changed. The leisure traveler is where it's at. That's why you're seeing flight discounts, no change fees and flights added to leisure destinations."

Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) has already seen some tangible signs to that effect, as JetBlue announced seven new destinations for 2021, including Las Vegas. Delta Airlines, meanwhile, announced it will restart its nonstop service to Paris by this summer.

"It is the time of your life to book future travel. Tickets are low, prices are low, you can use those miles, you're getting discounts and promotions. If you think you can travel in 2021, book those dream flights now."

Nationwide, pre-pandemic traveler habits will rely on less turbulence on the ground when it comes to the spread of COVID-19 -- and the efficient distribution of vaccines. North Carolina reported more than 150,000 cases in December, a total that is more three times more than the number of cases reported in September.

December, moreover, beat out November's record for most new COVID-19 cases by more than 50,000.

Before Thanksgiving, health officials warned of increasing metrics in December; Gov. Roy Cooper confirmed as much in a recent news conference.

"We certainly did see effects from Thanksgiving in our numbers, no question about that," Cooper said on December 22nd. "I think (NC DHHS Secretary) Dr. (Mandy) Cohen would tell you we did better than we thought we would do overall but we do expect higher numbers from Christmas."
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