While no one would say that the Transportation Screening Administration’s security screening numbers have returned to near their pre-coronavirus levels, there has been a slow but steady uptick of late. For example, Sundays are always one of the heaviest travel days of the week for the U.S. airline industry and this June 21st was no different, though “heavy travel day” is a relative term during this COVID-19 pandemic. Still, TSA screened more than 590,000 people at its airport security checkpoints that day, a number well above its historic low of 87,584 on April 14th of this year, when the coronavirus was at its peak. Likewise, U.S. airlines have also been slowly increasing flight schedules to accommodate increased demand.
Summer Travel Period
The summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day are always one of the busiest travel periods for the U.S. airline industry and, as a consequence, for TSA as well. Last year – June 21, 2019 – saw TSA screen nearly 2,720,000 people at its airport security checkpoints. While this year’s same-date screening number of 590,456 is well off the 2019 mark there’s no doubt air travelers are beginning to return to the skies in steadily growing numbers. In fact, since June 11, 2020 TSA has screened more than 500,000 people daily more often than it hasn’t, which is also a good sign of air travel’s continuing rebound.
Summer Flight Increases
Traditionally, U.S. airlines have always added flights to their summer schedules to accommodate seasonal demand and this year is no different, though the coronavirus has no doubt had an impact. In 2020, the addition of summer flights by the airlines is helping them rebound from drastic cuts to flight schedules most of them made in response to the steep decline in travel which began around mid-March. American Airlines, for example, plans to resume at least 55% of its domestic flight schedule starting in July, which represents a dramatic increase from May’s 20% figure. Overall, the four largest U.S. airlines – United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines -- have boosted June flight schedules by 27% over their May versions, with even greater increases to come for July.
China Flights Resume
This week, Delta Air Lines will also become the first U.S. carrier to resume flights to China since they were suspended by the government last February. The resumption of travel to China by Delta could be yet another hopeful sign of a potential rebound in international air travel. The airline will start slowly at first, with a Seattle to Seoul to Shanghai flight on Thursdays and then a return back along the same route on Saturdays. In July, Delta will add another weekly flight to Shanghai, this time from its Detroit hub. The flight will depart Detroit on Fridays, stop in Seoul and then end in Shanghai before returning to Seoul and finishing in Detroit on Sundays. United Airlines has also announced plans to restart flights to China in the near future, though no definite date has as yet been set.
As COVID-19 generally wanes in the U.S. and around the world, airlines will likely continue to add to their flight schedules, especially when it comes to international flights. As flights are added and as travelers return, TSA should also keep seeing a steady uptick in what the agency calls its “total traveler throughput” or the daily number of people it screens at its checkpoints.
To help get things moving again, Delta Air Lines plans to add nearly 1,000 flights in July, with many of them to popular summer destinations such as Florida and the West Coast as well as to what the airline calls “major business markets.” Borders are also opening in Latin America, meaning more flights to vacation hotspots such as Cancun in Mexico and also to Caribbean locales including Jamaica and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In South America, Sao Paolo in Brazil will also see service between it and Atlanta finally resume.
Europe won’t be left out of the mix, either, as Delta and other airlines begin ramping up regularly scheduled service between the U.S. and many European cities. These include travel to places such as Lisbon in Portugal and to Athens, Greece. Amsterdam and Paris will also begin seeing regular flights once again.
How soon TSA and U.S. airlines see a full return to pre-coronavirus travel numbers is anybody’s guess, though it’s not likely to be in the very near future. Some analysts as well as airline CEOs think it may take a couple of years before air travel rebounds fully from the hit caused to it by COVID-19, in fact, while others foresee a somewhat shorter time frame. Regardless, any increase in air travelers once again taking to the skies has to be a welcome sign to TSA administrators and airline and airport industry leaders.
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 400-plus commercial airports.