This past Sunday a major milestone was reached in U.S. air travel. The Transportation Security Administration reported that 1.34 million people passed through checkpoints at U.S. airports on that day.
This was slightly more passengers than the TSA had screened on the comparable Sunday a year ago. But what makes the figure particularly newsworthy is this: It’s the first time that the number of people flying in the United States has eclipsed the year-ago figure since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in this country.
Even more encouraging, Sunday was the fourth straight day that the TSA had reported more than 1 million people passing through its checkpoints.
The TSA’s seven-day moving average of passenger traffic has now reached its highest level since March 2020, when air travel essentially collapsed in the wake of the spread of COVID-19.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the amount of air travel is anything near the levels that were typically seen in 2019, the year before the pandemic struck. Indeed, daily traffic is still off by 45% to 55% compared to two years ago.
Looking back over the past year, there have been a few occasions where air traffic has edged higher, only to recede again. But those brief upticks were charted during the holidays. This time, the recovery seems real, according to Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Air Lines.
Southwest Airlines reports the same dynamics, citing increased leisure trip bookings.
On the other hand, business travel continues to lag — big time. But taken as a whole, the market is looking up. And that’s the best news the U.S. airline industry has had seemingly in eons.
What about you? How have your feelings evolved regarding air travel, and are you making plans for air travel in the coming weeks or months?
2 thoughts on “America turns the corner on air travel.”
I was a masked man in the air five separate times this last pandemic year and took something like 16 separate planes. Some observations:
My seat companions were well-behaved, but ranged from a hazmat-clad couple dressed for nuclear waste, to an enormous family with masks under their chins who never stopped eating long enough to use them.
Foodservice was gone. I learned to bring my own sandwiches and OJ, though I did resent Laura Scudder’s peanut butter being mistaken for a bomb at the checkpoint. Security went quickly, otherwise.
It was easier than usual to book seats I wanted — and usually easier to stay a little more apart from others — though quite a few flights were as packed as ever. The airlines adjusted quickly. I only experienced two nearly empty cabins.
I’m not certain how much business and convention travel will return. A certain portion of “virtual” will have come to mean “efficient” and will permanently affect office culture, if not private travel. One does wonder what will become of business district high-rises. It’s easier to downsize an airline than shrink an office building …
My last flight was on February 3rd, 2020, from Taipei to Bangkok. Since then I’ve been grounded in Thailand, where I live. Not since 1986, 35 years ago, have I stayed within the boundaries of a single country for an entire year.
Even if I wanted to travel outside Thailand, I’d have to spend 14 days in quarantine on the way back in. Since most other Asian countries have similar restrictions, a single trip would cost four weeks of downtime. The Thai government envisions lifting its international travel restrictions by October 2021 but Singapore, my most frequent pre-pandemic destination, isn’t likely to lift theirs until the end of this year. So there won’t be any recovery over here in Southeast Asia until early next year, at least.
The cost to the tourism-dependent Thai economy, which contracted by 6.6% overall in 2020, has been staggering. In 2019, Bangkok’s three commercial airports handled 109 million passengers — just shy of Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest. During the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, passenger traffic passing through Bangkok’s airports dropped 88%. By September 2020 (the last month for which data are available), traffic had recovered just 55% of the volume lost in April 2020, when a nationwide lockdown went into effect, but only 5% of this travel was international, compared to 66% in a normal year.
Thai Airways, the country’s flagship airline, has virtually ceased operations and is now in bankruptcy proceedings. Other privately-owned airlines have been begging the government for financial support in the form of “soft loans,” without success.
On the other hand, Thailand ranks as one of the best-performing countries in the world for managing the pandemic when measured by COVID-19 testing rates, test positivity rates, case recovery rates and case fatality rates — despite having detected the world’s first COVID-19 case outside Mainland China on January 13th 2020. To date, within the population of 70 million only 87 COVID-19 deaths have been confirmed. Vaccination hasn’t kicked into high gear yet, but based on the latest government pronouncements I’m expecting to receive my first jab sometime in June.
Had travel restrictions not been imposed, I would have grounded myself anyway during the past year and I feel fortunate to have been “stranded” in a place where the chance of catching COVID-19, so far, has been 250 orders of magnitude smaller than in the United States. I don’t imagine being able to travel by air again until late 2021 at the very earliest, once I’m vaccinated and travel restrictions start to loosen. Even then, I imagine my travel options will remain very limited until demand recovers enough for airlines to resume flying again.