COVID-19 cases across the country appear to be on the rise again after a period in which many states and regions saw declines as well as renewed hope for an end to anti-coronavirus travel precautions. Certainly, U.S. and global airlines were expecting a rise in passenger numbers heading into the holiday travel season as well as resurgence in 2021. Unfortunately, air travel numbers seem to have leveled off well below 2019’s record highs, with evidence of a plateau found in Transportation Security Administration passenger screening numbers of late.
TSA Screening Numbers
In the United States, if you fly commercially it’s a given that you and your luggage will undergo TSA screening before your flight. It’s also a given that TSA complies a mountain of statistics having to do with the people and things it security screens before both are loaded onto commercial airliners in the US. From those TSA screening statistics we may be able to discern certain trends related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including whether a return to pre-COVID passenger travel numbers is in the offing. Just from a brief look at TSA’s numbers, though, we continue to see evidence of the negative effect the coronavirus is having on U.S. air travel, with only around 696,000 passengers daily on average over the last eight week period. This compared to just over 2,010,000 passengers screened daily on average last year, resulting in only 35% of prior year traffic.
Changes in Throughput
TSA typically refers to its passenger screening numbers as “throughput,” and they’re used by airlines and travel industry organizations as a way to measure travel demand. If TSA processes 2.4 million people through its airport security checkpoints on a given day, travel demand is undoubtedly high. If the security agency only processes 500,000 people on a given day when a couple million were processed that same day the year before we can safely say travel demand is low. For 2020, the last ‘normal’ air travel day – one in which multiple millions of passengers were processed by TSA – occurred in early March, when the agency’s numbers tracked closely with those in 2019.
Assessing TSA Throughput
Since the COVID-19 pandemic fully took hold in the U.S. back in March, TSA throughput has ranged from extremely low and well below 100,000 passengers daily in April, to “only” low. In fact, there’s been just a single day since early March when TSA throughput reached 1 million passengers screened, which was on October 18 and 978,000 on November 15. And even though 1 million air travelers screened is relatively low when compared to the 2 million or more passengers TSA had been screening before the coronavirus appeared it still provided hope that the worst was over. So what can we predict in the fact that the security agency’s throughput numbers, while slowly (some would say “very slowly”) rising, have continued to remain well below 2019’s?
Airlines Chasing Leisure Travel
Business travel has been the moneymaking backbone of the U.S. airline industry for decades, especially during traditionally slow travel periods such as in the fall when schools are back in session and leisure travel for sightseeing and vacations dries up. It’s worth nothing, however, that leisure travel such as for vacations doesn’t make airlines a great deal of money even during gangbuster years like 2019. However, airlines have also been confronted with an 85 percent drop in the lucrative business travel segment and so have been forced to chase as much of the leisure travel market as they can. Many U.S. air carriers have restructured their route maps, for example, to offer travelers more flights to Florida as well as to popular winter vacation destinations, including Colorado and Utah. In the travel industry, the phenomenon is known as “beach and ski bum” travel.
Watch for Thanksgiving Travel
The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday travel period – which also kicks off the U.S. general holiday travel period – will tell us much about not only the resurgence of COVID-19 but whether TSA throughput numbers will once again top 1 million passengers daily. In any normal year – and there’s no doubt 2020 is anything BUT a ‘normal’ year – TSA throughput watchers could expect to see passenger security screening numbers routinely exceed 2.5 million or more on certain days of the week. This year, it would be safe to say that most observers will be happy just to hit that magical 1 million mark once again.
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.