NEW YORK (PIX11) — The Thanksgiving travel rush returned this year, as people caught planes in numbers not seen in years, setting aside inflation concerns to reunite with loved ones and enjoy some normalcy after two holiday seasons marked by COVID-19 restrictions.

However, changing habits around work and play might spread out the crowds and reduce the usual amount of stress on holiday travel. Experts said many people will start holiday trips early or return home later than usual because they will spend a few days working remotely — or at least tell the boss they’re working remotely.

Johelen O’Gilbert is eager to return to her home in Houston, Texas, and head right to the kitchen with her daughter Alicia.

Thanksgiving. It’s all about the southern cooking. Southern hospitality. When you cook for Thanksgiving, you cook for everyone that comes by,” said O’Gilbert as she waited for her flight.

She is one of the roughly 55 million Americans who are anticipated to travel 50 miles or more for the Thanksgiving holiday. According to AAA projections, this Thanksgiving is expected to rank third in terms of vehicle traffic. Considering the setbacks COVID created for the travel industry, it’s a tremendous increase.

“The total numbers of travelers, those traveling by car, those flying and those traveling by other forms of transportation — that’s a train, a bus, or a cruise ship — all those trips are 98-99 percent of pre-pandemic levels when we’re talking about 2019,” said AAA-North East spokesman Robert Sinclair. 

The busiest travel days during Thanksgiving week are usually Tuesday, Wednesday and the Sunday after the holiday. The Federal Aviation Administration expected Tuesday to be the busiest travel day, with roughly 48,000 scheduled flights this year.

Telia Jones opted for a Tuesday flight to spend more time with family. 

I’m going to get down there a day earlier to help them shop and prepare all the foods and start that tomorrow night … I actually have to help,” said Jones.

The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.6 million travelers on Monday, surpassing the 2.5 million screened the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2019. The same trend occurred Sunday, marking the first year that the number of people catching planes on Thanksgiving week surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

“People are traveling on different days. Not everyone is traveling on that Wednesday night,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president at the trade group Airlines for America. “People are spreading their travel out throughout the week, which I also think will help ensure smoother operations.”

AAA predicts that 54.6 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home in the U.S. this week, a 1.5% bump over Thanksgiving last year and only 2% less than in 2019. The auto club and insurance seller said nearly 49 million of those will travel by car, and 4.5 million will fly between Wednesday and Sunday.

“People are tired of being stuck at home. They are ready to get back to their families and everything,” said traveler Julian Dozier.

U.S. airlines struggled to keep up as the number of passengers surged this year.

“We did have a challenging summer,” said Pinkerton, whose group speaks for members including American, United and Delta. She noted that airlines have pared their schedules and hired thousands of workers — they now have more pilots than before the pandemic. “As a result, we’re confident that the week is going to go well.”

U.S. airlines plan to operate 13 percent fewer flights this week than during Thanksgiving week in 2019. However, by using larger planes on average, the number of seats will drop only 2%, according to data from travel-researcher Cirium.

Airlines continue to blame flight disruptions on shortages of air traffic controllers, especially in Florida, a major holiday destination.

Controllers who work for the Federal Aviation Administration “get tested around the holidays. That seems to be when we have challenges,” Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle said a few days ago. “The FAA is adding another 10 percent to headcount. Hopefully, that’s enough.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has disputed such claims, saying that the vast majority of delays and cancellations are caused by the airlines themselves.

TSA expects airports to be busier than last year and probably on par with 2019. The busiest day in TSA’s history came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, when nearly 2.9 million people were screened at airport checkpoints.

The busiest roads will be the Belt Parkway, Long Island Expressway, and Verrazano Narrows Bridge in the New York region. According to experts, Thanksgiving morning would be the ideal time to depart. The worst time is in the late afternoon on Wednesdays when commuters and vacationers mix.

When traveling by air, aim to arrive at the airport three hours before an international flight and at least two hours before a domestic one. Get all your questions addressed before traveling, such as whether Thanksgiving dishes should be packed in a checked bag, a carry-on, or neither, to save time.

“TSA.gov and our homepage has a great feature: Can I bring? Type it in. Type in cherry pie, cake brownies, cookies, baked goods and you’ll find out. Yes, you can bring them through the checkpoint. You can carry on solid foods. Some people do bring full turkey,” said TSA Spokesperson Lisa Farbstein. 

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Associated Press writers Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, North Carolina, Margaret Stafford in Kansas City and AP video journalist Terence Chea in Oakland, California contributed to this report.