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At Delta Air Lines, Memorial Day weekend kicks off the busy summer travel season

Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — The kickoff for the summer travel season is in full swing, as millions of travelers take to the roads and the skies for Memorial Day weekend.

Over the holiday, 2.1 million passengers per day are expected to go through security checkpoints at airports nationwide, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The volume could exceed pre-pandemic levels, TSA said.

“Passengers should expect airports to be extremely busy,” Robert Spinden, the federal security director at TSA, said in an interview with ABC News. “But we’re prepared.”

To meet the demand, Spinden said his agency has increased the use of overtime and is allowing officers that are in part-time status to convert to full-time. The agency is also “aggressively” recruiting new officers in preparation for the summer travel rush, he said.

Airlines are also gearing up for the busy travel weekend. United Airlines expects an average of 4,000 flights a day over the weekend, American Airlines says it will average 5,700 flights a day and Delta Air Lines is planning on 4,500 daily flights per day.

“We’ve been waiting on this moment in this weekend for two years,” Allison Ausband, chief customer experience officer and executive vice president at Delta, said in an interview with ABC News. “It kicks off the summer season, but for Delta people, it really kicks back that we are back to normal.”

The airline expects to fly approximately 2.5 million customers between Thursday and Monday — up 25% from last year. Ausband said domestic leisure travel has fully recovered from pandemic lows, and transatlantic travel continues to improve. The airline will service 275 destinations over the holiday weekend.

“In many ways, this is just sort of like a dry run for the summer because you’re expecting even more passengers after this?” asked ABC News transportation correspondent Gio Benitez.

“It is a dry run, but we want the dry run to go great this weekend because that will tell us, right, how the rest of the summer is going to go,” Ausband said.

As demand continues to increase from pandemic lows, airlines have had to adjust their schedules. Bad weather in April compounded the issue by forcing airlines to cancel thousands of flights amid the boom.

The ongoing pilot shortage has also had an impact on operations. Bad weather in April compounded the issue by forcing airlines to cancel thousands of flights amid the boom.

“We never like to cancel a flight. I hope our customers know that it is the last resort that we take. Honestly, it’s bad for our customers and it’s bad for our people. It’s bad for the operation,” Ausband said. “We have built so much trust and confidence being number one from a reliability perspective. And so even one cancel. It doesn’t it doesn’t feel good.”

The airline said it would notify customers of the changes “as far in advance as possible.”

To prevent travel disruptions, Delta announced Thursday it plans to cut 100 flights a day from its schedule between July 1 and August 7. The airline said the move will “build additional resilience in [its] system and improve operational reliability for [its] customers and employees; we’ll continue to proactively adjust select flights in the coming weeks.”

New technology put to the test over the holiday weekend

Throughout the pandemic, airlines implemented new technology aimed at making the travel experience faster and hands-free.

Last year, Delta launched a digital identity feature — a first-of-its-kind pilot program that will implement facial recognition technology at certain airports across the country. Ausband said the program will “continue to grow throughout [their] network.”

“We want it to be effortless for the customer – touch free, hands free,” Ausband said.

And in the security lane — TSA has over the past few years begun deploying computed tomography x-ray systems at airports nationwide. The scanners use “sophisticated algorithms” to detect weapons, explosives and other prohibited items by creating 3-D images of carry-on items.

“This not only enhances our security effectiveness, but provides an efficiency for the passengers by allowing them to maintain more items inside their property than what they could prior,” Spinden said.

“[The pandemic] gave us the opportunity at Delta to say, let’s take a blank sheet of paper and reimagine the customer experience on board,” Ausband said.

Masks no longer required for travel

With the federal mask mandate lifted, airlines are no longer requiring passengers to wear a face covering on flights. Most airports across the country have also done away with the requirement, though some have kept it in place in accordance with local laws.

For those who may be concerned, Ausband said, “It is going to be busy getting through, but know that it’s absolutely safe. If you want to wear your mask on board, you can absolutely wear your mask on board.”

Airlines have touted enhanced cleaning protocols since the beginning of the pandemic. Ausband said things like cleaning between flights and hand sanitizer on planes are here to stay at Delta.

“The pandemic gave us an opportunity to rethink how we clean our airplanes. So those care standards that we implemented are still there,” Ausband said.

Preparing for the travel rush

For those who are planning to fly this weekend, experts recommend getting to the airport early and making sure your carry-on luggage is properly packed with no prohibited items on board.

“There are going to be a lot of travelers, so expect there to be long lines, and expect it to take a while to check your bag or to get through security,” Scott Keyes, founder of the flight deal subscription service Scott’s Cheap Flights, said. “If you have TSA PreCheck or clear or something like that, certainly make use of it this weekend because otherwise it could be a long wait to get to your flight.”

The busiest airports this weekend will be Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, and Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, according to Hopper, an online travel booking platform.

“We’ve got two years of pent-up vacations that we haven’t had to take,” Jenn McNeely, a flight attendant at Delta Air Lines told ABC. “But we’re ready. We’re excited and let’s get going.”

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