TSA by the numbers: passenger volume down 90% in coronavirus slump

Mar 27, 2020

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We all know by now that demand for air travel has fallen off a cliff since the beginning of the month.

Some airlines have put a temporary stop to flights altogether. Others have cut their networks by up to 90% — or more.

Partly, this drop can be seen as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic as people opt not to travel in an effort to stay healthy. But it’s also a necessary business move by carriers. Some countries have prohibited discretionary travel.

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How dramatic has the decline in demand been? Just look at data from the Transportation Security Administration.

TSA screenings may not be a beloved part of U.S. air travel, but they’re a requirement whether you like it or not. Everyone from guests in Etihad’s Residence to the passenger about to occupy seat 26E on the next Spirit Airlines flight has to pass by the administration’s blue-shirted sentries on their way out of any American airport.

Those agents are now less busy than they have been in a decade.

According to Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the TSA, the administration’s employees screened only 203,858 passengers across the entire country on March 26. That was a drop of nearly 90% compared to the nearly 2,487,162 people screened by the TSA on the same date in 2019.

Farbstein said on Twitter that it represented the agency’s lowest number of single-day screenings since 2010, when the country was emerging from the Great Recession.

In the seven-day period that started March 13, TSA agents saw screenings decrease by more than 100,000 passengers each day. That period included passing the less-than-a-million screenings threshold on March 17, compared to more than 2 million on the same weekday in 2019.

Related: Airport operations are shifting during coronavirus slump.

Then the free fall picked up steam. Screenings fell to less than half a million by March 22 and continued to trail off quickly every day since. It took only four days to drop again from 454,516 passengers screened on Sunday to the new record-low number on Thursday, March 26. The TSA’s latest screening data can be found on its website.

(Image courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration)

Across the travel industry, the sudden evaporation of demand has changed the way companies do business, operating fewer flights and likely changing the long-term landscape of the airline business.

U.S. airlines are waiting on a $50 billion aid package, expected to be signed into law imminently, but even that isn’t going to provide a boost in demand for travel. It’s just meant to keep airlines and their employees afloat for a few months as they try to ride out the slump.

Related: 5 key elements of the airline aid package.

In the meantime, the game of traveler screening limbo will continue. We may actually find out the answer to the question: “how low can you go?”

Read more: What the airline aid package means for travelers.

Featured photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

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