Millions of pandemic-weary Americans are expected to head to the airport next week and board flights so they can spend Thanksgiving with family and friends.
The loved ones of Eduard Faktorovich have a message for them: Stay home.
A successful former travel agent, Faktorovich was thrilled when he landed a job as a TSA agent at Denver International Airport two years ago “because that was part of his passion,” his niece, Megan Faktorovich, told The Daily Beast.
Early this month, the TSA agent was diagnosed with COVID-19. His last day at work was Nov. 2. By Monday, he was dead.
As much as her 49-year-old uncle loved to travel, Faktrovich said, “We’re hoping that this can be a message to everyone to stay home for the holidays.”
“I don’t think it’s safe for anyone to travel at this moment in time, especially with the holidays coming up and the huge spike in COVID cases,” she added. “It’s just such a scary thing, especially when it hits so close to home. A lot of people do realize that until it’s too late.”
It was a message many in the travel industry were trying to get out. Nearly 3,000 TSA agents have contracted COVID since the pandemic started, and nine have died. Union officials warned this summer that TSA was struggling to keep all of its airport employees safe. Now, with the holiday travel season coming up and cases of COVID reaching historic highs across the country, many workers are afraid it will only get worse.
A record 31.6 million people flew on Thanksgiving week last year. AAA estimates this number will be cut in half this year, but that still leaves millions of Americans getting on planes over the holiday period. In its first briefing since August, the Centers for Disease Control warned Thursday against traveling for the holidays, saying it could be impossible to socially distance in crowded transportation hubs.
“We understand that and people want to see their relatives and their friends in the way they’ve always done it,” CDC COVID-19 Incident Manager Henry Walke said in a call with reporters. “But this year, particularly, we’re asking people to be as safe as possible and limit their travel.”
“From an individual household level, what’s at stake is basically an increased chance of one of your loved ones becoming sick and then hospitalized and dying,” he added.
“Until we’re safe, I don’t think passengers will feel safe.”
— Serah Ezeuodoye, Denver airport worker
Even the Los Angeles International Airport—the world’s third-busiest airport—got in on the action, tweeting Wednesday: “If you do not have to travel for the holidays, don’t.”
A day earlier, workers at airports in seven different cities protested for safer working conditions through car caravans, socially distanced rallies, marches, and other protests to demand COVID-19 protections during the holiday season. Their demands included more personal protective equipment, training on disease prevention, safe staffing levels, and more.
“We’ve been at the front lines of this pandemic since the start. We have lost coworkers to the virus and to layoffs,” Serah Ezeuodoye, a wheelchair attendant at Denver International Airport, said in a statement. “Families want to spend the holidays together, but first they want to know they can travel safely. Until we’re safe, I don’t think passengers will feel safe.”
Teresa Peralta, at terminal cleaner at JFK International Airport, said that no matter how many precautions airlines and airports took, increased travel would still pose risks to their employees. She urged travelers to think of the airport employees, their children, and their elderly relatives when moving through the terminal.
“People might think when they see us working that we have good health insurance, that we will be taken care of when something bad happens, when that is not the case,” she said through an interpreter. “I really want people to understand and to fathom the risks that we are putting ourselves in every day.”
Peralta stopped short of asking people not to travel for the holidays, saying that without travelers, she would be out of a job. The 55-year-old was diagnosed with COVID in March and was out of work for six months. More than anything, she said, “what I would stress is that people are careful when they travel.”
Scott Elmore, a spokesperson for Airports Council International, said airports are “taking every measure possible to protect the health and safety of the traveling public and airport employees.” But he added that even his group is pushing for formal federal guidance on mask usage in airports, saying that it would “help to curb the spread of COVID-19 and re-instill confidence in those who work in or travel through America’s airports.”
On Thursday, Megan and the rest of Faktorovich’s family headed to his funeral. In a statement, the TSA offered its “sincerest condolences” to the family, adding that “the entire team at DEN is saddened by the loss of one their own.” (His colleagues, the agency added, “remember him as a kind and respectful person, who always had a smile on his face.”)
Faktorovich had been encouraged by the steps TSA was taking to keep its employees safe, his niece said, but was disheartened by the lack of respect from customers. In the end, she said, it may have been his dedication to these same passengers that put his life at risk.
“He wanted to make sure everyone going through was safe,” she said, “no matter what.”