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Signs of a Rebound in U.S. Air Travel Continue to Be Seen

By Kelly Hoggan

In a good sign for the industry, US airlines are continuing to see an increasing number of passengers in a sign the worst of the pandemic's effects may be over.

The Transportation Security Administration continues to see a slow but steady improvement in the number of air travelers it screens daily at its US airport checkpoints. Also, the nation’s largest non-hub air carrier, Southwest Airlines, announced last week that it’s resuming its traditional passenger boarding process, something it had ditched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These are good signs for the US air travel industry, and here’s why:

TSA Screening Numbers

Earlier in March, we noted that TSA was now screening a million or more passengers through its airport checkpoints on most days that month. In fact, as of March 29th, the federal security agency had screened at least 1 million passengers on all but five days in the month, and even those five came close to topping out at a million. Since March 18th, TSA screening numbers have also routinely exceeded 1.4 million passengers a day, with three of them coming in at more than 1.5 million. The slowest screening day since the 18th came on Tuesday the 23rd, when nearly 1.1 million travelers made their way through TSA airport checkpoints.

By comparison, March 2020 TSA screening numbers quickly fell out of the sky as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe. On March 28th of this year, TSA screened nearly 1.6 million travelers at its airport checkpoints, while the same weekday in the prior year (2020) only saw 154,080 passengers processed by TSA. Note, though, that TSA’s daily screening number came in at a robust 2.36 million passengers for that same weekday in 2019, indicating air travel in the US continues to be off its record 2019 highs. Still, the federal agency’s March 2021 screening numbers do show an air travel industry that’s seeing slow but steady improvement.

Southwest Airlines Boarding Policy

Prior to the appearance of the coronavirus, Southwest Airlines boarded its passengers in groups of 30, something that allowed the carrier to get all its passengers quickly and efficiently aboard its planes and then into the air. When the pandemic hit, the airline -- which doesn’t assign seats – reduced the number of passengers it boards to 10 at a time to promote social distancing. In a statement, Southwest implied that most of its customers had an expectation of a return to its traditional boarding process and that the time to do so had arrived. The airline appears to be following in the footsteps of well-known air carrier Jet Blue, which returned to its pre-pandemic boarding policy earlier in March.

Face Masks, Coverings Still Required

Though more Southwest passengers can now board their flight at one time, the airline – like all other US carriers – is still adhering to the face mask and face covering recommendations laid out by the US Centers for Disease Control. To board your flight, and to go through a TSA airport security checkpoint, you still must wear a face mask or face covering in most cases. Of the major US hub airlines – Delta, American, and United – all but American (which never changed the way it boards passengers) still have pandemic boarding policies in place.

Continuing Improvement Ahead?

Given the continuing improvement in TSA passenger screening numbers and the change to boarding policies by Southwest and other airlines, not to mention that a few of the major carriers are adding routes and additional flights to popular vacation destinations, it just may be that the US air travel industry is finally on an extended rebound.

Make no mistake: Travel numbers are still off, and US airlines are also still struggling and in need of federal aid due to the devastating effects of the coronavirus, but the picture isn’t as bleak as it was for most of 2020, and that’s a sign that formerly blinking-red travel indicators may at long last finally be turning to a steady and much-welcomed green glow.

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.

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