TSA hits a major milestone in travel recovery, but there’s a catch

Jul 2, 2021

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The air travel recovery has hit a new milestone.

For the first time since the pandemic began, the Transportation Security Administration screened more daily travelers than it did on the comparable day before the crisis.

That came Thursday, when the TSA counted 2,147,090 travelers at its checkpoints. Not only was that nearly three times the count from the comparable Thursday in 2020, but it also was more than the agency counted on the comparable Thursday in pre-pandemic 2019.

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It’s one of the most tangible signs yet of the slow-but-steady air travel recovery that’s been building since the industry bottomed out on April 13, when just 87,534 people – a 96% drop from the year before – were screened.

However, Thursday’s milestone comes with something of an asterisk. That’s because the TSA benchmarks its daily count against the comparable day of the week from the prior year.

That means the count from Thursday, July 1, isn’t compared to July 1 from previous years, but rather to the comparable Thursday from those years. The reason: to make sure a busy day of the week from one year — such as a Friday — isn’t compared to a typically slower day of the week in a prior year that just happened to fall on the same numeric date.

Typically, that allows for the relevant comparison of days across different years. But it can also create some unusual outliers, and that’s just what happened for this milestone.

The TSA’s screening count for Thursday, July 1, 2021, was one of the highest daily totals since the pandemic began. The nearest comparable Thursday in 2020 was July 2 — and numbers for that day last year were predictably lower than normal because of the pandemic’s effect on travel.

But the date of the comparable Thursday in 2019? That was July 4. It’s typically the slowest travel day of that week since most people book flights around – but not on – Independence Day itself.

So if this year’s numbers had beat July 1 of 2019, we’d really be celebrating.

Still, asterisk or not, the superlative is surely a welcome one for an industry eager to put the pandemic behind it.

Featured photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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