On April 14, 2020 the Transportation Security Administration screened fewer than 88,000 air travelers at all its US airport security checkpoints. By contrast, on that same date the year before the federal aviation security agency screened more than 2.2 million flyers. Mid-April of this year, of course, is acknowledged as being the height of the COVID-19 global pandemic, and air travel was badly affected by the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, though, TSA has seen a slow rebound in its screening numbers, which is also a good sign for air travel in general.
Experiencing the Depths
It’s an understatement to say that TSA checkpoints were nearly deserted during the worst of the spread of the coronavirus. US airports became figurative ghost towns, as the federal government and many US states imposed a wide variety of travel advisories and mandatory lockdowns in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19.
TSA and its aviation security operations were just as deeply affected, with some airport checkpoints screening relatively few people in an entire day, all while the agency quickly began putting anti-coronavirus protective measures into place. At least at that time, however, there didn’t seem to be much light at the end of what appeared to be a long, dark tunnel.
Slow Return to Normal
Hope does spring eternal, which is an axiom every optimist sincerely believes to be true. On April 23rd, a little more than a week after it screened the lowest number of people ever, TSA saw more than 110,000 people pass through its security checkpoints. The agency’s daily screening numbers have also been slowly but steadily rising since then, especially on Sundays and Mondays, which are typically the busiest travel days of the week for airlines and airports. Nearly 800,000 travelers went through TSA’s security checkpoints on Sunday, August 2nd and July 31st through August 3rd saw screening numbers well north of 700,000 each day for the first time in months.
Past versus Present
No one at TSA or among aviation security industry watchers would say that US air travel has returned to normal, of course, especially when looking at year-over-year data for security screening and what the agency calls “total traveler throughput.” While nearly 800,000 people were screened on August 2nd, keep in mind TSA saw almost 2.62 million people go through its airport security checkpoints on that same day the year before. Still, there’s little doubt that the security agency’s airport security checkpoints have been seeing increasing numbers of travelers as we’ve moved farther and farther away from mid-April.
Note of Caution
As always when it comes to air travel during the COVID-19 era, a note of caution is in order. Many travelers are still wary of flying and with some states experiencing what health officials call a “second wave” of new coronavirus cases, the slow rebound in passenger screening numbers is still fragile. A serious second pandemic or widespread illness outbreak could jeopardize air travel yet again, for instance. It’s comforting to know, though, that TSA is doing everything it can in the fight against the coronavirus, including spending millions to acquire and install new acrylic barriers at key officer-passenger contact areas at many of its checkpoints across the nation.
Update: At nearly 832,000 people, Sunday April 9th saw TSA's screened traveler number exceed 800,000 for the first time since March 17th, when more than 900,000 air travelers went through the agency's security checkpoints that day.
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.