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Philadelphia Airport prepares for a bump in holiday travelers over Christmas week

American Airlines cut four flights to Europe due to low demand. The CDC continues to recommend that staying home and postponing trips is the best way to avoid becoming infected with COVID-19.

A plane on approach to Philadelphia International Airport on Nov. 24.
A plane on approach to Philadelphia International Airport on Nov. 24.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia International Airport is expecting one of its busiest weeks since the pandemic began, as more people across the country opt to fly for the holidays.

The airport estimates that 316,000 travelers will pass through during the week surrounding Christmas, between Dec. 21 and Dec. 28, according to spokesperson Florence Brown. Traffic over Thanksgiving was comparable.

The volume of Christmas week travelers will be down about 55% compared with the same time last year, an improvement next to the overall trend for 2020. Total passenger traffic at PHL is down about 63% this year, as of October.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that staying home and postponing trips is the best way to avoid spreading or becoming infected with COVID-19. In recent weeks, coronavirus cases surged throughout the U.S., and in Pennsylvania, where health officials issued an order requiring that travelers test negative for COVID within 72 hours before entering the state, or else quarantine for 14 days once they arrive.

But similar to Thanksgiving, when public health officials also warned about the risks of travel and the spread of coronavirus, millions of Americans are still making holiday trips.

Nationally, the Transportation Security Administration reported 3.2 million passenger screenings from Friday, Dec. 18, through Sunday, Dec. 20. That’s the highest level of weekend travel volume since the pandemic began, according to TSA figures, surpassing the 3 million travelers who went through security checkpoints the weekend before Thanksgiving.

American Airlines, Philadelphia’s dominant air carrier, is planning for an increase in travel this week and next — even though demand for flights remains dramatically reduced compared with last year.

The airline’s December schedule at PHL is 50% smaller than the same time period last year “with the exception of the last two weeks of the month, which will be 45% smaller,” spokesperson Andrew Trull said. “The busiest travel days are Dec. 21-23, 27-30, and the first weekend of January 2021.”

» READ MORE: COVID-19 risk on airplanes is low if these precautions are taken, Harvard study says

In December 2019, American had 298 average daily departures out of Philadelphia. This month, it is averaging 173 daily departures from PHL.

American added several seasonal routes from Philly this past weekend. Those destinations include Palm Springs, Calif.; Daytona Beach, Fla.; the Caribbean islands St. Maarten and St. Lucia; and Eagle County, Colo., near the Vail ski resort area.

Yet heading into 2021, American has also decided to suspend four routes between Philadelphia and Europe, saying there are not enough customers during the pandemic.

American is “closing three stations across the Atlantic: Manchester (MAN), Prague (PRG) and Reykjavik (KEF),” according to a company statement. “We will also extend the suspension of service to Venice (VCE) with the intent to resume service in 2022.”

The airline said it will serve those markets instead through its partnerships with British Airways, Finnair and Iberia, and its future partnership with Aer Lingus.

» READ MORE: TSA officers at Philadelphia International Airport see alarming rise in coronavirus cases, union says

Jim Moses, American’s vice president for PHL hub operations, outlined the changes in a memo to employees last week. American is redeploying some of the long-haul planes used on trans-Atlantic flights, into Latin America and Caribbean destinations, he said.

“Unfortunately, customer demand in the Northeast — and to Europe — remains low despite expanded COVID-19 testing programs and the reassurance provided by our comprehensive Clean Commitment,” Moses said in the Dec. 18 memo, a copy of which was provided to The Inquirer. “And while news of a vaccine provides a path towards recovery, consumer uncertainty and government travel restrictions have taken a very real toll on our business.”

American Airlines stock is down about 50% in the last year, closing Tuesday at $15.48, down from a high of $30.47 on Feb. 12.

American Airlines has centered its European flight schedule around Philadelphia in recent years, and Moses told staff that he remains “hopeful for the future of Philadelphia (PHL) as our primary trans-Atlantic gateway.”

The company is planning to relaunch flights between PHL and 12 European destinations by summer 2021. Those include: Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Paris, Dublin, Edinburgh, Rome, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Shannon, and Zurich.