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Airport officials, travelers confident of virus safety with holiday air traffic in Madison

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Dane County Regional Airport officials and travelers are confident about safety with the coronavirus as air travel increases in the lead up to Thanksgiving, and as health officials discourage travel.

More than three million people went through airport security checkpoints across the United States between Friday and Sunday, despite public health guidance against traveling for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 1,019,836 individuals on Friday and 984,369 on Saturday. But Sunday saw the most travelers, with TSA screening 1,047,934 people -- the highest since the coronavirus pandemic was declared in mid-March.

The previous pandemic record was set on Oct. 18, the Sunday after the long Columbus Day weekend, when TSA screened 1,031,505 individuals.

Area TSA spokesperson Frank Pipia says the number of passengers being screened through security in Madison during the same time period was brisk, but he references no record amount. "From what I see, I think we are looking at about a 10 percent passenger increase," Pipia says.

The increase comes as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Dane County health experts urge people to forego travel of any kind over the Thanksgiving holiday period.

"I worry about contact with others, you're traveling with people, you may have no idea about their status," says infectious disease specialist Dr. Nasia Safdar of UW Health. "If we can double down for these next few weeks and not have travel on our list... I think that would really help the community," Safdar says.

Airport spokesperson Michael Riechers says officials are cognizant of warnings from Public Health Madison and Dane County. "We're in lock step with the county," Riechers says. "We want to see everybody do what's right and safe as far as personal protective equipment and physical distance."

Riechers says since the onset of the pandemic, the airport has installed hand sanitizer stations, increased a relatively touch-free passenger experience from terminal entry to arrival at TSA screening and provided free masks. "They hand out masks at this airport, which I think is very responsible of them," says UW-Madison student and traveler Ben Nour.

Travelers say they are aware of the health guidance to forego holiday travel.

"We've been doing all the right things up to this," McFarland's Deanne Klein says as she prepares for a flight to Phoenix. "Wearing masks and staying home, limiting who we're with and where we go."

"Of the people who do need to travel for one reason or another, we're trying to ensure the safest and most efficient travel experience while they're here," Riechers says.

"I think it's very important for me to go to see my family right now because I haven't seen them for so long due to COVID-19," Nour says of his flight plans to Los Angeles. "I was really looking going home for this Thanksgiving."

Riechers says air travel at the airport year-to-date is down more than 70 percent. He says in addition to the marginal uptick during the Thanksgiving period, airlines at Dane County Regional are adding more warm weather destination flights in anticipation of slowly-increasing demand over the next few weeks. "We're optimistic and we're hopeful that travel can increase in a safe and responsible way," Riechers says.

Klein says her Thanksgiving week travel will unite her with daughter, although other family members will remain in Wisconsin in acknowledgement of the COVID-19 situation.

"If I get it, it'll be unfortunate," Klein says. "But I hope I'm doing all the right things."

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Tony Galli

Reporter, WKOW

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