TSA screenings top 1 million for first time since March

Oct 19, 2020

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It took a random fall weekend for the number of air travelers in the U.S. to pass 1 million for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 1.03 million people on Sunday, Oct. 18, data released Monday shows. While still less than 40% of 2019 levels, the million-flyer mark is something of a symbolic threshold for the travel recovery in the U.S. — and one that came on a non-holiday weekend more than a month before the busy Thanksgiving and December holidays.

Maybe it was the changing autumn leaves?

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Airlines have pulled back on flying since the summer amid uncertain travel interest. Domestic giant Southwest Airlines is due to fly only about 56% of what it flew a year ago in October compared to the 73% of 2019 flying it flew in August, according to Cirium schedules.

However, the newly robust screening numbers could mean airlines stand to benefit for a relatively strong year-end holiday travel season.

Of course, flyers are almost entirely leisure travelers with lucrative business travel still largely grounded across the U.S. On Oct. 15, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said he does not expect corporate flying to return to “normal” levels until around 2024.

Related: When will business travel return? Not until 2024, predicts United CEO

“This is definitely good news,” said Henry Harteveldt, president at Atmosphere Research Group. “My concern is that with the virus surging in many states in the U.S. and elsewhere, I’m concerned that  we may start to see people stay home.”

The number of new COVID infections has risen steadily from around 35,500 a day in mid-September to more than 70,000 a day on Oct. 16, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. While infections are rising across the U.S., states in the upper Midwest including Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin, are seeing the highest positivity rates.

The last time coronavirus cases surged in the U.S. — in June and July — airlines saw new bookings drop and many rolled back plans to add flights. Carriers have yet to do the same amid the current surge in new infections.

TSA screenings dropped below 1 million on March 17, when 953,699 people passed through checkpoints. Screening numbers bottomed out at 87,534 travelers on April 14.

Related: Airlines expect a post-coronavirus boom in leisure travel, they just don’t know when

Featured image by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images.




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