See how COVID-19 dropped airline passenger numbers to record lows

Reaching record highs is one thing — but then one year later to bottom out with record lows is another.

In 2019, most would not believe this narrative to be possible in the airline industry because of the extreme numbers of travelers corralling through the airports — but then along came 2020. We’re all painfully familiar with the effects of the pandemic, and the travel industry was no exception to feeling the impact when business came to a screeching halt.

But 2021 is proving to be a new year marked by increased numbers of checkpoint screenings and passengers aboard planes, indicating consumers are more open to the idea of traveling by plane.

As confidence grows among domestic travelers — and global ones — the number of TSA screenings is showing us how bookings are steadily on the rise. While the numbers show there’s still quite a ways to go before travel hits pre-pandemic levels, there is no doubt people are on the move through our nation’s airports.

Airline travelers drop as COVID-19 spikes  

It’s hard to understand how devastatingly low the numbers of travelers were throughout 2020 without seeing the record-breaking numbers from 2019. The majority of days in 2019 experienced over 2 million checkpoint screenings in the airports. It seemed to be the “new normal” for airline travel, even heading into the first quarter of 2020.

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Then in March 2020, it all changed. Travel bans were put in place and lockdowns were ordered. COVID-19 was on the rise and uncertainty loomed. 

“In the beginning, we saw the dip in screenings correlate to what was going on with the pandemic,” explains Mark Howell, the Southeastern Regional Spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “The numbers trickled down as the lockdowns were put in place. Then we saw drops in numbers location by location, as spikes in cases in specific locations were occurring.”

“In April 2020, we saw our lowest numbers on record for checkpoint screenings,” added Howell. For instance, on April 14, 2020, there were 87,534 recorded checkpoint screenings, compared to the exact same day the year before, which registered over 2.2 million travelers. 

Holiday travel saw unique spikes 

As 2020 played out, one scenario remained unknown and wouldn’t be fully realized until the end of the year — how would holiday travel be impacted by the pandemic and the current domestic and global travel restrictions? It was harder to predict how comfortable people would be for their usual holiday travel plans.

As it turns out, more travelers proved the pandemic would not alter their own travel plans, although not to the extent of what 2019 saw during its holiday season.

Interestingly, travel during Thanksgiving 2020, saw some of the largest number of screenings since the beginning of the pandemic. November was the first month since the pandemic began where screenings logged in at over one million at least three days out of the month.

But it wasn’t only the numbers that increased. The volume of passengers seemed to shift days too. In 2019, the heaviest volume of screenings occurred on the actual day of Thanksgiving (November 28th) and the day after. However, in 2020, the highest volume for holiday travel was seen the day before Thanksgiving (Nov. 25th) and three days after. The 2020 Thanksgiving travel “season” seemed to be extended compared to 2019.

December 2020 exposed the higher number of travelers and airport screenings too, although the volume was more spread out. If you look at the last two weeks of December, the average number of screenings per day was 992,000, compared to 2.3 million in 2019. This volume was the highest seen since March 16, 2020 and there were several days of over one million screenings. 

While the Dec. 2020 numbers were relatively high compared to other months of the battle with COVID-19, it still represented less than half the volume from the year prior.                                                                                                                                                                  

2021 flight booking increase thanks to vaccine news 

January 2021 brought about new changes in the fight against the pandemic, and one of the most significant changes was the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. As COVID-19 cases are starting to drop to numbers seen last summer, and the availability of the vaccine has become more widespread, the number of checkpoint screenings has also increased. 

Domestically speaking, in the month of March this year, there were 26 days of over 1 million passenger screenings — the first time this has occurred since the start of the pandemic. This trend is continuing: the TSA hasn’t had a day in April where it’s screened less than 1 million passengers. Although these numbers seem high compared to the majority of 2020, it still represents a fraction of the 2019 travel numbers.

Another trend emerging in 2021 worth noting is that most flying is occurring for leisure travelers and not those on business trips. When you ask the TSA how it can tell the difference between the two types of travelers, the answer is simple: “the rate of guns found at checkpoint screenings” explains Howell.

When people travel for leisure, they often forget to check their firearms, which is the proper way to transport your firearm during flights. The rate of firearms discovered during screenings is higher right now, which indicates more leisure travel since most business travelers are not allowed by their company to have a firearm in their possession. 

Whether it’s for business or leisure, when you look at the TSA response to the increase in numbers you can gather some sense there are preparations underway for continued increase.

In March of this year, the TSA announced it would hire 6,000 more employees for the summer and the anticipated increase in summer travel. “We are preparing and anticipating for travel to pick up,” Howell confirms.  But ultimately, “it comes down to what happens with the vaccines and everyone’s comfort level with travel.” 

How travel increases or decreases as the pandemic progresses in 2021 remains to be seen. It remains unclear whether the number of screenings or passengers will come close to the record-breaking 2019 levels.  And as 2020 often reminded us, anything is possible. 

Bottom line

While travel has increased tremendously in 2021 compared to the earlier days of the pandemic, the number still remains far below 2019 levels — which were setting records at the time. However, as passenger’s comfort level adjusts and the vaccine becomes available, it appears the demand for travel should continue to rise. 

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