Sacramento International Airport is anticipating a high volume of travelers this Independence Day weekend.
Airport officials say they are expecting more than 125,000 people to fly out of Sacramento’s two main terminals, with the busiest days predicted to be Thursday and Friday. The airport also plans to welcome thousands of visitors coming to explore the region during the holiday weekend, said Andrea Sandoval, a spokeswoman for the county’s airport system.
That mirrors trends across the nation as more than 3.55 million Americans are expected to take to the skies, according to AAA. That’s a 1.5% increase from the same time a year ago, but close to 10% off pre-pandemic numbers.
Airlines that have stumbled badly over the last two holidays face their biggest test yet of whether they can handle big crowds when July Fourth travelers mob the nation’s airports this weekend. Airlines may not have enough planes and flights to carry all of them, especially if there are cancellations due to weather, crew shortages or any other reason.
Problems were popping up well before the weekend, with some disruptions caused by thunderstorms that slowed air traffic, though cancellations and delays at the Northern California hub have been few. American Airlines canceled 8% of its flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, and United Airlines scrubbed 4% of its schedule both days, according to FlightAware.
To help travelers manage the likely rush, airport officials shared tips on how to ensure a smooth traveling experience, including when to arrive at the airport and where to park:
When to arrive
Arriving at the airport early is one way to save time and beat the lines. It also adds some cushion in case plans go awry.
Airport officials recommend travelers arrive two and half hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight.
This weekend, the main domestic destinations are Hawaii, Southern California, Las Vegas and Seattle, airport officials said Thursday. The top international destination is Mexico.
Where to park
Parking is expected to be tight this weekend due to holiday travel plans, and the airport recommends travelers find alternative ways to get to the airport.
Some non-parking options include getting dropped off by friends or family members, taking public transportation, calling a taxi, shuttle or using a ride-sharing app like Uber or Lyft. Sacramento Regional Transit’s Route 142 bus has service between downtown Sacramento and the airport seven days a week.
Travelers who need to park their cars at the airport can check how many spots are available on the airport’s real-time parking status website, which includes information on airport shuttle services and details on long-term parking.
Plan ahead as it may take up to an hour before getting inside the airport due to shuttle service intervals.
Only credit and debit cards are accepted in parking lot booths.
Flight delays and cancellations
Air travel in the U.S. is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Since last Saturday, an average of nearly 2.3 million people a day have gone through airport checkpoints — down just 8% from the same days in 2019. If that trend continues through weekend, records will be set for flying in the pandemic era.
Airlines may not have enough planes and flights to carry all of them, especially if there are cancellations due to weather, crew shortages or any other reason.
“Airlines are learning the hard way that there is a severe price for over-optimism,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University. “They are on the edge of a cliff this holiday.”
Schwieterman calculates that airlines have little cushion between the number of travelers expected to fly this weekend and the flights they plan to operate — if all goes well. Any disruptions could cause chaos because planes are booked full — there will be no empty seats on later flights to accommodate stranded travelers.
Airlines are short-staffed nationwide
Airlines have been caught short-staffed as they try to hire thousands of workers, including pilots, to replace those who they encouraged to quit when the pandemic caused air travel to plummet.
Many of them, including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue, have trimmed summer schedules to reduce stress on their operations. They are using larger planes on average to carry more passengers with the same number of pilots. Those steps haven’t been enough so far this summer.
Delta Air Lines took the unusual step this week of warning travelers that there could be problems over the holiday weekend.
The Atlanta-based airline said it expects the biggest crowds since 2019, and this will create “some operational challenges.” It is allowing passengers booked on flights between Friday and the Monday holiday to change their schedule at no cost, even if the new flight comes with a higher fare.
“Delta people are working around the clock to rebuild Delta’s operation while making it as resilient as possible to minimize the ripple effect of disruptions,” the airline said.
Delta had by far the most canceled flights of any U.S. airline over the Memorial Day holiday stretch, when U.S. carriers scrubbed nearly 2,800 flights, and again last weekend, when it canceled 7% of its flights, according to FlightAware.
Other tips to save time
Consider checking in for your flight at kiosks, scattered throughout the terminal, rather than waiting in line at airline counters.
SMF also has a TSA PreCheck enrollment center, open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the week, where travelers can walk in and sign up for the program. Getting approved for a PreCheck can reduce the amount of time spent in a security line. Applications are available on the first level of Terminal B near the baggage claim area.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
This story was originally published June 30, 2022 1:10 PM.