This week is expected to be the busiest during spring break season at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but it remains to be seen whether the number of passengers taking to the skies will match pre-pandemic levels.
“The number of people traveling through MSP this March and early April is likely to be the most since 2019,” said Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). “In fact, spring break travel at Terminal 2 is likely to surpass 2019 numbers due to air service expansion by Sun Country Airlines.”
Beginning in early 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak devastated air travel at MSP. But the number of passengers has slowly recovered ever since, due largely to activity among leisure travelers.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) continues to require masks aboard aircraft and at airports, at least until April 18. But as mask mandates and other COVID-related restrictions ease, beach and warm-weather destinations appear to be among the most popular vacations this spring, according to national data released by AAA.
The top five destinations are Orlando, Fla.; Cancun, Mexico; Honolulu; Las Vegas and Maui, Hawaii, according to a travel club news release.
“Travel is shockingly close to pre-pandemic levels,” said Kyle Potter, executive editor of the Thrifty Traveler website. “Spring breakers are coming out of the woodwork to go somewhere warmer, and even a good chunk of business travelers are getting back in the sky as offices open up and events un-pause after a two-year hiatus.”
Potter said it’s still too early to tell whether travel numbers will match or surpass pre-pandemic levels.
“What’s undeniable is that we’re heading into the biggest travel surge yet and the closest thing we’ve had to a ‘normal’ vacation season in more than two years,” he said.
March 4 was the busiest day this month so far for passenger activity at MSP, with some 38,600 travelers being screened at security checkpoints, said Chad Leqve, MAC’s vice president of management and operations, during a commission meeting Monday.
On average, about 34,000 travelers have been screened daily this month, Leqve said.
“We’ve come a long way to where we are now,” Leqve said. “We’re seeing some healthy and encouraging numbers in the way of passengers coming through.”
The busiest times at MSP’s security checkpoints tend to be during the early morning hours. Domestic travelers are advised to arrive two hours ahead of their flight, and 2-1/2 hours before international trips.
“Lines are reportedly getting long at MSP and that’s no surprise: We’re getting into the thick of what’s typically the busiest stretch for the airport during normal times,” Potter said.
“Flights are incredibly full, too, as airlines have been hesitant or unable to put more planes in the sky in fear of outpacing travel demand,” he added. “And people are searching for and booking flights at a pace we haven’t seen since, well, maybe ever?”
Increased traffic is expected at MSP next week due to the NCAA Women’s Final Four basketball tournament in Minneapolis on April 1-3.
About 85% of the airport’s food and beverage and retail concessions have reopened at least part-time, according to the MAC. For the first time since the pandemic struck, older parking ramps at Terminal 1 are often at capacity during peak times, though the Silver Ramp is available to handle the overflow, Hogan said.
One unfortunate scenario during airport peak hours: Vehicles spilling onto Hwy. 5 while waiting in line to drop off or pick up passengers. Hogan said that people can pick up and drop off passengers on the upper or lower levels of Terminal 1, depending on how busy they are.
For those driving to their spring break destination, the national average gas price in the United States of $4.104 a gallon broke the existing record earlier this month — but that price varies widely depending on location, according to GasBuddy. This week, Los Angeles became the first U.S. city to report an average price per gallon of at least $6.