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A Frank Talk About Thanksgiving Travel

Photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Flying over Thanksgiving is already baseline chaotic, but this year is looking extra unpleasant as severe weather sweeps various parts of the country. In New York, rains are predicted to roll in on Tuesday night and last through Wednesday — peak holiday travel days. To help travelers prepare or at least come to a place of acceptance of their fate, we spoke to Aidan O’Donnell, the deputy director of the Aviation Department at Port Authority, who oversees JFK, La Guardia, Newark, Teterboro, and Stewart International airports. He is decidedly not flying this week but can at least tell you what to expect and a few things you can do to lessen the stress.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are you bracing for this week? 
We’ve been looking at our forecasted passenger demand and, from Monday the 20th through Monday the 27th, we are anticipating just above 3 million passengers. If we hit our forecast it’s going to be the busiest Thanksgiving travel period on record for the Port Authority. So yeah, it’s definitely going to be busy.

And the weather isn’t looking great. 
Locally, we’ve got our eye on the rain and the winds especially, which can make it tricky for flight operations. We’re also looking at forecasting outside of the Northeast because there’s bad weather working its way across the country. So in addition to the local impacts, we’re watching the flights coming in from large hubs outside of the New York area — Atlanta, Charlotte, and Chicago — where we’re also expecting kind of poor weather.

That seems messy. 
I don’t think the rainfall and the winds are going to be that severe in New York and New Jersey, but on any peak holiday, especially Thanksgiving, the flights are full and airline schedules are very busy so there’s limited resiliency in the system. Delays tend to be a little bit more impactful.

How are you preparing?
Each airport at the Port Authority is headed up by an airport general manager who will be making sure that our airline partners, third-party service providers, and federal partners like the TSA and Customs and Border Protection have everything that they need — they’re adequately staffed, they have the materials they need to operate successfully during a really busy time.

Any advice for weary travelers beyond the obvious — show up early, make sure you’ve got your documents?
The Port Authority also has wait-time information on our websites, so for customers who just want a little bit of reassurance or want to understand what to expect, they can go and look at what the real-time TSA checkpoint wait times are like at each one of the airport terminals. And for anybody who is driving to the airport and wants to park, we strongly recommend that folks pre-book their parking at the airport. It guarantees folks a spot, there’s also a nice pre-booking discount that people can take advantage of, and then operationally, it helps the airport out as well because it gives us a better understanding of when folks are going to show up and how long they’re going to stay for.

Is it going to be bad flying home?
Interestingly enough, what we’ve experienced and noted coming out of COVID is that the Thanksgiving holiday travel period in particular tends to last a little bit longer than it used to. So the airports will actually stay a little bit busier coming out of the weekend. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday passenger volumes are still going to be up.

So early next week is still kind of peak travel. 
If folks were anticipating flying back and maybe things would be a little bit less busy, I would still encourage the same things as when you’re departing. And patience. A little bit of patience goes a long way.

What’s the craziest travel day you’ve seen in this job? 
Winter Storm Grayson, which was back in January 2018. It was a multi-day snowfall event that resulted in just a lot of chaos with respect to airline cancellations and flight delays, customers missing flights, and customers having challenges getting their luggage. We learned a lot of lessons coming out of that event five years ago.

Are you going anywhere this week?
I live in northern New Jersey and I’ve got family out on Long Island. I’m going to be sticking around this week, probably just bearing through some traffic.

I was going to say, you’re lucky you don’t have to fly. But you also have to be in charge of the flights, so —  
I’m going to be local. If there’s anything that does pop up at the airports, we’ve got the ability and the resources to deal with it quickly so that people can get on their way.

A Frank Talk About Thanksgiving Travel