Labor Day Brings Passengers Back But September Remains Crucial

The Labor Holiday is nearing its end in the United States. On Friday, September 3rd, over two million passengers took to the skies. While numbers remained low on Saturday, September 3rd, and Sunday, September 4th, those dips were expected given the federal holiday on Monday, September 6th. While Labor Day numbers have come back strong, overall, September will remain a crucial month for gauging the recovery.

Labor Day Brings Passengers Back But September Remains Crucial
Labor Day travelers have come back strong, but September may still have some rough air ahead. Photo: Getty Images

Labor Day brings travelers back

Since around the second week of August, passenger numbers have seen a general decline. While there was some hit to numbers over recent spikes in case counts and hospitals filling up, some structural factors also began to appear, leading to a decline in passenger counts.

However, Labor Day was a recent bright spot. While numbers for Monday, September 6th, were not available at the time of writing, airlines are certainly showing some signs of positive results. Here is the breakdown in daily traveler numbers from Thursday, September 2nd through Sunday, September 5th:

  • Thursday, September 2nd: 1,896,846 travelers
  • Friday, September 3rd: 2,129,999 travelers
  • Saturday, September 4th: 1,545,955 travelers
  • Sunday, September 5th: 1,630,786 travelers
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Labor Day is a largely leisure-heavy travel period. Photo: Getty Images

Friday, September 3rd, was the first time since August 15th that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recorded over two million travelers in a day. Friday was also the highest single-day tally of travelers since August 8th, which was a Sunday.

Airlines had largely expected a strong Labor Day. Delta Air Lines publicly released that it expected to fly at least two million customers between September 2nd and 6th, which is over twice as many customers during Labor Day in 2020 and about 80% of Labor Day 2019 levels, which would occur if the airline flew as many as 2.2 travelers during the holiday.

September remains crucial

June, July, and August were all relatively strong months. For much of the summer, the numbers of the pandemic had been trending in the right direction, with increasing vaccinations and decreasing case counts. Pent-up demand began to show itself as travelers booked flights to major leisure destinations and to visit family and friends they had not seen in months.

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Leisure travelers have powered the recovery, but September is typically when fewer leisure passengers take to the skies. Photo: Getty Images

But, as August progresses, schools start to reopen. Thus, traditionally, airlines start to see some decline in leisure travel as families store their suitcases, kids pack their backpacks, and parents go back to the office. This is why some leisure routes typically operate on a summer seasonal basis, especially to places in Europe like Venice or Lisbon.

Labor Day, which falls on the first Monday of September, is an unofficial last hurrah of the summer. In the days and weeks after Labor Day, most schools will go back in session if they had not welcomed students back already. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, will welcome students back on September 13th.

Traditionally, September is a very business-travel-heavy month. Offices send their employees on the road now that kids are back in school. While kids are going back to school, business travel continues to remain depressed. The recent rise of the Delta variant may also blunt some of the return of business travel.

A case study for business demand

Airlines are very bullish on the return of business travel. While the early days of the crisis led to hypotheses of the death of business travel, the decline of cities, and a permanent rise in remote work, not all of those narratives have come true; in fact, in some cases, the opposite has shown itself.

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So far, the trends of recent close-in cancellations have not been as stark as in the early days of the crisis. Photo: Getty Images

The virus will still be around, but the question will be what happens with business travelers. Will companies send their employees back on the road even amid a rise in cases if they are vaccinated? Will conference dates and in-person events remain intact? The pandemic continues to unfold, but this is somewhat uncharted territory to have a vaccine while still seeing new variants spread.

September will be the case study for business demand. Carriers have expressed a deceleration in bookings and some increases in close-in cancellations in the last few weeks. Still, it is unclear to what extent this trend will either accelerate, decelerate, or remain stagnant. This leaves September as a month to watch.

If traveler numbers can stay above the 1.5 million passengers in a day, it could be a good sign for airlines that business travelers are still willing to step onboard an aircraft. If traveler numbers slip, it could mean some rough air ahead for airlines.

Are you going to travel in September? Did you travel over Labor Day? Let us know in the comments!