TSA screenings spiked over July 4 weekend, but it's still a long road to recovery
July 4 weekend saw a new travel record for 2020 in the U.S. Over the course of the holiday weekend, Transportation Security Administration screenings rose above 700,000 for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak took root in the states.
But even the new high numbers are a harsh reminder of how little people are traveling this summer compared to the pre-pandemic normal.
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According to the TSA, 764,761 people passed through its airport checkpoints on July 2 this year, compared with almost 2.1 million on the same weekday in 2019. On July 5 2020, 732,123 people were screened, compared to almost 2.8 million on the same day last year.
But even these new highs are more muted than they could have been.
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Last month, Henry Harteveldt, president of travel industry analysis firm Atmosphere Research, told TPG that screening numbers might top 1 million over Independence Day weekend.
He predicted more communities around the country could be relaxing restrictions on social distancing and allowing tourism-friendly spots like restaurants and entertainment venues to reopen in time for the holiday.
Instead, we're seeing the opposite.
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Screenings staying below 1 million this weekend can be explained by a variety of factors, Harteveldt said by email.
"Ongoing concerns about air travel combined with the virus resurgence in several states and travel restrictions remaining in place limiting international travel," he wrote.
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So while the air travel recovery is generally trending upwards, the industry may have a long time to wait before a million people pass through the nation's airports on a single day again.
Helane Becker, an aviation analyst at Cowen, wrote in a report at the end of June that the million traveler milestone might not happen until Christmas.
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"We would like to see a further step up in demand trends to get comfortable with a potential recovery to 1 MM passengers / day by the December holidays, but so far the recovery has been better than we suspected it would be," the report said. However, it cautioned, "news headlines remain negative with the U.S. setting new case records almost daily, led by Florida, Texas, Arizona and California. Economies in those states have been slowing their reopening timeline while also enacting further restrictions."
New restrictions and increasing case numbers could further slow or even temporarily reverse the recovery.