OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Lines swelled at Oakland International Airport early Wednesday as travelers, who had delayed gathering with family and friends during the long months of isolation during the COVID pandemic, crowded onto flights on the way to Thanksgiving weekend reunions.

Travel experts have predicted the number of air travelers this week would approach or even exceed pre-pandemic levels.

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If the scene at Oakland International was being repeated at airports across the country, those bullish predictions were coming to fruition.

Traffic on the highways leading into local Bay Area airports were already backing up at 6 a.m. and lines at the check-in counters and TSA checkpoints were growing in length by the minute.

Among those waiting to board flights was Jojo Saunders, who lives in Marin.

“We’ve been scared to death, that’s why we haven’t travel,” Saunders said. “We really hibernated and did what we were supposed to do. But now it feels like we can finally get out and get about. Especially since where we live, people are wearing mask and have been vaccinated…It feels like we can finally do this safely.”

Oakland Airport PIO Kaley Skantz said the large crush of passengers was expected between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.

“Passengers who are traveling by air for the first time in a while can expect to have a travel experience that’s a little bit different,” Skantz said. “Masks are required at Oakland International and that applies to airports across the United States.”

Traffic on Bay Area freeways was slowing as well with many taking to the road to get to their holiday destinations.

The projected busiest time to travel on Wednesday is between noon and 9 p.m., with the real crunch time coming between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. when holiday travels will merge with the afternoon drive traffic. It will be particularly busy on I-80, I-580 and U.S. Highway 101.

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Traffic will be lighter on Thanksgiving Thursday and Friday, but is still expected to pick up in the afternoon, so traveling in the morning is advised.

Sunday will be one of the busiest travel days on the roadways during the long weekend. Drivers are advised to try and head to their destinations before noon and pack patience along with any Turkey Day leftovers.

More than 2.2 million travelers streamed through airport checkpoints last Friday, the busiest day since the pandemic devastated travel early last year. From Friday through Monday, the number of people flying in the U.S. was more than double the same days last year and only 8% lower than the same days in 2019.

For their part, airlines are hoping to avoid a repeat of the massive flight cancellations — more than 2,300 apiece — that dogged Southwest and American Airlines at different times last month.

The breakdowns started with bad weather in one part of the country and spun out of control. In the past, airlines had enough pilots, flight attendants and other workers to recover from many disruptions within a day or two. They are finding it harder to bounce back now, however, because they are stretched thin after pushing thousands of employees to quit when travel collapsed last year.

American, Southwest, Delta and United have all been hiring lately, which gives the airlines and industry observers hope that flights will stay on track this week.

“The airlines are prepared for the holidays,” said Helane Becker, an airlines analyst for financial-services firm Cowen. “They cut back the number of flights, the industry has enough pilots, they are putting more flight attendants through their (training) academies, and they are paying flight attendants a premium — what I’m going to call hazardous-duty pay — to encourage people not to blow off work.”

The airlines have little margin for error right now. American expected to fill more than 90% of its seats with paying customers on Tuesday. That’s a throwback to holiday travel before the pandemic.

“There is not a lot of room to put people on another flight if something goes wrong,” said Dennis Tajer, a pilot for the airline and a spokesman for the American pilots’ union.

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