Millions of people traveled for the holidays, despite worsening pandemic and pleas from the CDC

Jan 5, 2021

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The holiday season is officially over, but we’re just getting the final numbers of how many people traveled for Christmas and the new year. And it could be weeks before we understand the ramifications of this upswing in travel.

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On Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, a new pandemic-era record was set when 1,327,289 people were screened at airport security checkpoints across the country. It’s the highest volume the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has seen since March 15, 2020, when 1,519,192 people were screened — and easily surpassed the number of people who passed through TSA checkpoints the Sunday following Thanksgiving.

And even though many people returned to school and work on Monday, people are still clearly returning home from their holiday trips. On Monday, Jan. 4, TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said 1,080,346 people passed through national security checkpoints, marking the seventh of the last 10 days to exceed 1 million travelers.    

About 1.19 million people passed through TSA checkpoints on Dec. 23, but the numbers predictably tapered off on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as travelers made it to their holiday destinations. Then, the numbers spiked again: 1.13 million on Saturday, Dec. 26; 1.28 million on Dec. 27; then 1.11 million on Dec. 28; 1.02 on Dec. 29 and up to 1.16 on Dec. 30, before dropping below 1 million again on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Following the holiday, on Jan. 2, 2021, 1.19 million people passed through national airport security checkpoints.

The numbers surpassed many projections. AAA, for example, predicted that just 2.94 million travelers would fly between Dec. 23, 2020, and Jan. 3, 2021.

Of course, these numbers are nowhere near 2019 levels. This time last year, well over 2 million people were being screened almost daily at TSA checkpoints around the U.S.

Related: Flying over the holidays? Here are 12 things you need to know before taking off

But the consistently high volume of travelers is still concerning when you consider that COVID-19 cases are continuing to surge across the country, and an even more contagious strain is triggering lockdowns and flight cancellations in Europe. December was the deadliest month in the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic, The Atlantic reported.

And the coming days and weeks will be a strong indicator of whether people (many of whom may have traveled for the first time since the onset of the pandemic during the holidays) will continue flying — and whether new COVID-19 cases will continue to follow the upward trajectory of TSA screenings.

Feature photo of crowds at Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) on Dec. 18, 2020, by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images.

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