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MSP Airport gears up for Memorial Day weekend travel surge

Heading into the summer, airports across the country are expecting a return to 2019 travel volumes.

MINNEAPOLIS — Ahead of the Memorial Day weekend rush, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport buzzed on Wednesday with familiar travel stories.

Ethan Hersant, a freshman hockey player at St. Olaf College, prepared to board his first international flight home to British Columbia since last fall. Christopher Check of San Diego had just completed a visit to La Crosse, Wisc., to celebrate his brother's 25th year as a Catholic priest. Ernesto Londoño arrived at MSP to catch a flight to Miami for a wedding.

It almost felt like old times — nothing like the early days of COVID-19. 

"Airports were ghost towns. It was very eerie," Londoño said. "Airports are now packed. We're waiting in longer lines, people are pressed up together, and it's clear people just really want to be on the road again."

MSP expects Memorial Day weekend passenger volumes to accelerate on Thursday, with 29,000 people predicted to cross through security. The holiday marks the "kickoff to the summer vacation schedule," according to Metropolitan Airports Commission CEO Brian Ryks, who said the airport has seen about 82% of pre-pandemic travel levels restored. 

About 88% of nonstop routes have also returned to MSP, along with most international flights, although service to Asia remains suspended until at least the fall. 

Looking ahead to the summer, the Transportation Security Administration predicts "passenger volumes that will match and may occasionally exceed those of 2019 for the first time since the pandemic began." Already, this past Sunday, nationwide checkpoint totals reached 2.3 million, surpassing 2019 totals on the same day three years ago. 

"We're seeing traffic grow more and more each day," Ryks said. "We don't have all the business travel back yet, but that's improving each and every day."

To accommodate the increased demand, the Metropolitan Airports Commission is expanding Concourse G by 50,000 feet, a project totaling about $80 million. The upgraded area serves Delta passengers and includes a new rotunda, restrooms, restaurants and other amenities. 

"It really compliments what we've done on the front of the terminal," Ryks said. "We've added space down there as well, which was critical during the COVID social distancing era that we went through the last couple of years. This adds additional space."

As demand for air travel increases, customers remain plagued by soaring airfare prices and occasional widespread travel disruptions, as KARE 11 has reported over the past several months. 

On Wednesday evening, though, MSP reported only a smattering of cancellations and delays, and passengers seemed to be getting through security smoothly.

"It's refreshing," Ethan Hersant said of the crowds. "Hopefully, it's a sign of the future and 'back to normal,' as they say."

But travelers may still want to give themselves extra time at the airport starting Thursday, as Memorial Day weekend ramps up. 

Christopher Check, flying back home with his son to Southern California, said he has no plans to return to any airport this weekend.

"That's right. We'll be in San Diego," he said. "There's no reason to go anywhere."

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