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U.S. Airlines Hit by Lowest Passenger Traffic Year Since 1984

By Kelly Hoggan

COVID-19 has forced airlines to cut flights to deal with a loss of passengers due to lockdowns.

News reports the last several days have been noting US airlines’ 2020 passenger traffic numbers. Unfortunately for those carriers, none of the news was good, especially when it came to the lack of passengers flown last year, and it’s all due to the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 hit airlines hard and in every way that mattered. Though they believe they can rebound, beginning in the latter half of 2021, it’s still worth reviewing just what went on when it came to 2020’s airline passenger numbers.

2020 vs. 2019

In 2019, US airlines enjoyed a record year, flying 922.6 million air travelers to destinations in the United States and around the world. At least for the first two months of 2020, the nation’s air carriers seemed on track to exceed 2019’s sterling passenger totals. Beginning in late February and early March of 2020, though, the coronavirus hit US shores and widespread shutdowns and lockdowns were instituted by federal and state political leaders and regulatory agencies.

On March 1st of 2020, for example, nearly 2.3 million people were security screened at TSA airport checkpoints around the country, and such passenger traffic volume was the norm on most days before COVID-19. One month later, on April 1st, TSA screening volume had plunged to a then-unheard-of 136,000. By April 14th of 2020, screening numbers for the federal security agency had reached their nadir, at 87,534 travelers processed through TSA checkpoints.

Since that signal day, daily passenger screening volume has slowly crept back up, but it’s still at less than half what it was in 2019, with very few days since March 2020 coming in at 1 million or more air travelers being seen at TSA’s airport checkpoints. The agency’s screening numbers provide a reliable indicator of airline traveler numbers on a day-to-day basis, as anyone starting their travel at a US airport must go through TSA screening before boarding their flight.

Steep Declines

In total, US airline passenger traffic for 2020 declined by more than 60%, reaching its lowest number since 1984, with COVID-19 devastating air travel demand globally and especially in the United States. It also didn’t matter the time of year, as the coronavirus slammed even the extremely busy November-December-January holiday travel period. In December, for instance, air travel fell 62%, which was a bit more than the previous month’s decline. International travel was particularly hard hit, declining by 70.4%, with domestic travel within the United States falling by nearly 59%.

Revenue Losses

The industry trade group Airlines for America noted that in 2020 the country’s nine largest airlines lost a combined $46 billion before taxes as they dealt with the dramatic loss of business created by the coronavirus pandemic. The organization also predicts that passenger traffic volumes won’t return to their pre-COVID-19 levels until 2023 or 2024. Declines in passenger traffic are also reflected in airline flight volume, which is down in the US by about 45%. Congress has stepped in twice already to provide emergency aid to the country’s airlines so that they can avoid widespread employee layoffs and furloughs, and it’s also contemplating a third round of funding to keep airline workers on the job through September 30th, which is the end of the federal government’s fiscal year

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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