By now, it’s well-known that air travel has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, with airports, airlines and associated businesses suffering as a result. Since March 2020, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has reported daily passenger security screening counts that frequently came in at record low numbers. The volume of people TSA screens daily provides us with a good sense of how busy US airlines are, too. If March 2021 numbers are any indication, US air travel may finally be picking up after a challenging year. Here’s what’s going on:
Friday March 12th of this year saw TSA screen 1,357,111 people at its US airport security checkpoints, its highest number of passengers screened on a single day since March 15th of 2020. On the same March screening weekday in 2020 as the March 12, 2021 day, the federal security agency saw 1,788,456 people go through its checkpoints. This year’s same-day passenger screening count is only about 20% lower than the same 2020 weekday, in other words.
The agency’s March 2021 counts are a surprising bit of good news, overall, in a time when TSA passenger counts have frequently been much lower – by 50% or more -- on a year-over-year comparison basis. In fact, March 2021 has seen many more days of 1 million or more people being screened by TSA than days when fewer than 1 million were screened. On March 14th, for example, TSA screened nearly as many people -- 1,344,128 – as it did on the 12th, which is a good indication that US air travel may finally be on a general upswing.
Travel Revival Possible
The steep drop in US air travel March 2020 badly hurt airlines, with US air carriers losing more than $35 billion, combined, in 2020 due to low passenger traffic numbers. As the number of COVID-19 cases created a pandemic, airlines drastically cut flights and even blocked off whole seating sections on the planes they didn’t opt to take out of service. Air carriers also implemented a wide variety of coronavirus safety measures, another factor that helps explain why many people and businesses chose to postpone or cancel air travel plans. However, with TSA passenger screening numbers increasing, an air travel revival may be in the offing. For one, COVID-19 cases appear to be declining across much of the US. Also, increasing numbers of Americans are getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Airline Financial Aid
The latest COVID-19 aid package also contained good news for US airlines, as Congress approved another $14 billion so that carriers could extend employee payroll assistance for another six months. The aid is expected to save at least a combined 27,000 jobs at two of the three major US legacy airlines: United, and American. Upon notice of the aid approval, both airlines canceled potential layoff and furlough plans they’d recently notified employees they were considering.
Good News for 2022?
The nation’s biggest airlines – Delta, United, American, and Southwest – all say that they’re in much better condition to ride out this coronavirus-caused financial storm than they were during past major shocks, including 2008’s wave of restructuring and mergers. Though it’s still major money, many analysts expect US air carriers to lose “only” about $20 billion in 2021, which is much less than the $35 billion they saw disappear in 2020. Also, the nation’s air carriers (especially Delta, United, American, and Southwest – the lone non-hub airline among the group) have enough cash on hand plus assets they haven’t borrowed against. Sufficient cash plus unencumbered assets mean the nation’s largest airlines should be able to borrow whatever funds they require to ride the current economic storm out and head into 2022 in good position to regain equilibrium, then much-needed revenues and, finally, profits.
Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 450-plus commercial airports.