By any definition, 2020 was the worst year for air travel since the 9/11 terror attacks, with many airlines experiencing serious financial losses because of COVID-19. At its height, the coronavirus slammed airlines’ financial health through most of that year, with negative effects still being felt in 2021. In the US, many airlines had to ask for government aid to help them avoid layoffs and furloughs.
Added all together, the air travel picture in the US and globally wasn’t pretty. However, signs of a slow rebound in air travel are evident, with the Transportation Security Administration’s 2021 passenger screening numbers at more than 1 million daily since March 11th.
Pandemic Still Waning
As we’ve noted before, TSA passenger security screening numbers are a good indicator of the relative health of US air travel. On April 12, 2020, for example, TSA saw only 102,184 passengers go through its airport security checkpoints, when the year before nearly 2.5 million passengers were screened. That 2020 Sunday travel day was emblematic of how seriously weak air travel was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By contrast, the equivalent weekday number in 2021 was 1,468,972, with April 11 – a Sunday – even better at 1,561,495. Admittedly, those numbers are still off by about 25% over 2019, but there’s no doubt air travel is rebounding, and that the coronavirus appears to be on the wane.
US Airlines’ Health
Airline stock prices are also another sign of the relative health of the air travel industry. In 2021, US airline share prices have finally, though very slowly, begun to recover to pre-coronavirus levels. Reasons for why vary, including that more COVID-19 vaccines are finding their way to people who want them, and coronavirus infection rates are generally on the decline, according to US government sources. Also, government financial aid has helped soften the coronavirus’s impact on airline bottom lines as travel demand continues to recover from April 2020’s lows.
More and Fuller Flights
In a sign of confidence that 2021 won’t be as bad as 2020, US airlines have also carefully begun adding more flights to their schedules. More passengers are now flying, in other words, and they’re even paying more money for their seats. This metric (passengers paying more money for their seats) is known as “unit revenue,” and US airlines have been reporting better 2021 unit revenue than they saw for most of 2020, when carriers practically couldn’t give seats away for a time.
For example, Delta Air Lines had been blocking out or prohibiting the sale of center seats as a coronavirus prevention measure, but it recently announced it would resume selling those seats starting on May 1st. All other major US airlines had already dropped the ban on center seat sales, so Delta now doing so indicates full industry confidence that the worst could be behind them when it comes to COVID-19 and flying.
2021 and 2022
Airlines and airline analysts don’t expect a return to (mostly) normal air travel routines until 2022, and TSA’s screening numbers thus far this year do indicate that US air travel is still a bit depressed. However, as we head into the traditionally busy summer travel season, the federal security agency’s passenger screening numbers continue their improvement, and airline bottom lines do seem to be on the upswing. Public confidence that the coronavirus can be dealt with has also been on the rise, and people seem more eager to travel than they did throughout much of 2020. In other words, all signs are pointing toward a better air travel year than in 2020, and that’s good news for TSA, airlines, and the flying public.
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.