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Update: TSA Sees Huge Screening Drop in the Face of COVID-19 Pandemic

By Kelly Hoggan

Airport terminals are rapidly becoming ghost towns.

(ed. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is driving huge reductions in people going through TSA checkpoints. For example, on April 8th, only 94,713 flyers and others were screened by TSA at its airport security checkpoints. That number also includes airport and airline ground employees and the like who weren't flying that day. We'll be watching today's (the 9th) numbers along with those on Friday the 10th and Monday the 13th to determine whether the continuing decline in screening numbers is slowing or even stopping or if the drop will keep going until some theoretical bottom is finally reached.)

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of U.S. society, most especially where travel is concerned. When it comes to flying, shelter-in-place orders and social distancing efforts have together combined to reduce air travel to an almost nonexistent state. The near complete absence of flyers is seen in the number of people the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has processed through its checkpoints of late, with less than 124,000 screened on April 2nd. By way of comparison, TSA screened an average of 2.2 million people daily in 2019.

Disquieting News on the Horizon

At first, air travel had been only minimally affected by the initial appearance of COVID-19 in the U.S., even after U.S. president Donald Trump announced a ban on travel to and from China on January 31st. Domestic travel also remained largely unaffected in February, though disquieting signs began appearing on the horizon as Europe started feeling the effects of a widening COVID-19 spread throughout the continent. U.S. air carrier Delta Air Lines, for instance, announced early in March that it had seen a $2 billion drop in revenues the month prior.

Gradually, then Suddenly

Still, TSA saw nearly 2.3 million people pass through its security checkpoints on Sunday, March 1st and almost 2.1 million the next day. Sundays and Mondays are traditionally heavy travel days in the U.S. and those two days were no different from any other Sunday/Monday travel period. In terms of airports and airlines as well as TSA, flying through the first 10 days of March also remained strong and the security agency’s numbers continued to track with historical averages.

Tuesday, March 10th, however, saw the first noteworthy drop in year-over-year TSA checkpoint travel numbers, with only about 1.6 million people screened compared to around 2.1 million on the same date the year before. That same week, President Trump also implemented another travel ban, this one for Europe. From there, the number of people TSA saw at its checkpoints declined gradually all the way through Sunday the 16th. At 1.26 million people, that day also marked the last one in which the agency screened more than a million people daily.

The barriers to air travel numbers, both real and imagined, had seemingly been dropped. Suddenly, the decline in flyers and others going through TSA’s checkpoints became steep. Only 954,000 people were screened on Monday the 17th and by Friday the 21st the number was nearly half that again at a mere 548,000. By Sunday the 29th, TSA checkpoints nationwide were nearly deserted, with an unheard-of low 180,000 travelers and others making their way through the agency’s airport checkpoints. The rest of the week was no better, which brings us to the present day, and no one is quite sure as yet where it will all end.

Protection Mission Remains

TSA isn’t immune to the effects of COVID-19, and over the past 14 days there have been 58 screening officers who have tested positive for the virus. As good stewards of the fiscal resources entrusted to them by the nation’s taxpayers, agency leaders have also sought ways to reduce staffing levels to better match up with the steep drop in air travelers and airport and airline employees. TSA has encouraged voluntary leaves of absence and the like, which both reduce staffing levels and help to contribute to the nation’s social distancing efforts, though its protection mission remains unchanged as always. In response, the agency is continuing to ensure commercial airports are staffed with TSA screening officers, transportation security inspectors and other frontline security personnel so that the security envelope which protects flyers remains as strong as ever.

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.

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