TSA Numbers Show The US Holiday Rush Has Begun

With a week to go until Christmas, the holiday rush has begun. Recent data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) show that Americans are still going out and about via air transportation, despite recent headlines surrounding the public health situation. While there is still plenty unwritten about the travel season this winter, airlines are cautious but not yet sounding the alarm over travel.

United, American, LAX
Passenger numbers show a solid start to the winter holiday period, but there are still some unanswered questions. Photo: Getty Images

Holiday travel is off to a strong start

On Thursday, December 16th, 2,062,579 passengers went through a TSA screening checkpoint. The Thursday before that, December 9th, saw 1,959,937 passengers pass through a checkpoint. Then, on December 17th, the TSA recorded a total throughput of 2,233,754 passengers. This was an improvement over the 2,045,674 passengers screened on December 10th, the previous Friday.

Numbers are also expected to remain high on the 18th and 19th of December. In 2019, the Friday before Christmas saw the TSA screen 2,608,088 passengers. So, while numbers are still high, there is a gap between 2019 and 2021 travel levels, indicating some lingering effects of the crisis.

Airlines are expecting to fly significant volumes of customers this winter. Delta Air Lines announced that it expects roughly 7.8 million customers to board its planes between December 17th and January 3rd. While still below the 9.3 million passengers it flew in 2019, it represents a continued rebound in overall travel demand.

TSA Numbers Show The US Holiday Rush Has Begun
Passenger numbers show a strong start to the holiday season, but there is uncertainty over how strong numbers will be. Photo: Getty Images

A different environment than 2019

While there is a different public health environment in 2021 compared to 2019, there are also some structural changes to the way people work and go to school. The rise of remote work and remote learning has helped reshape the way some people can travel. Speaking to investors on Thursday, Delta’s CEO stated the following on how he thinks this will work:

“There’s nothing inherent to video conferencing that restricts mobility. Video conferencing actually enables mobility, allows you to take your office with you. It doesn’t force you to stay at your house. You can if you want to, but it doesn’t force you. It allows you to stay engaged. And so, I think we’re going to have more remote work opportunities, more flexible work patterns. All of that’s going to enable mobility. All of that’s going to feed into travel, some with business, some with new forms of travel.”

So far, the travel number trends for 2021 mirror 2019’s, but the weeks ahead could provide a greater understanding of how some of the ways people live and work will impact the way people travel.

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The shadow of Omicron

Not only will the next two weeks provide an idea of how travel has changed, but it will also help show the impact of the Omicron variant on travel. The Delta variant in the summer caused a slowdown in bookings and an increase in cancellations that materialized over the period of a few weeks.

Emirates, Boeing 777, Nigeria
Pre-travel testing may be a new addition to itineraries for Christmas travelers. Photo: Getty Images

Looming large is the unknown implication of Omicron. This last week has seen case counts start to spike in parts of the Midwest and Northeast, including New York City, arguably the country’s largest and most important air markets. Airlines have not sounded the alarm in the way they did when the Delta variant started to rise. In fact, some airlines have instead indicated that Americans are showing resilience and sticking with their travel plans.

There was likely a contingent of travelers expecting to fly this weekend who did not fly due to Omicron fears. While the total public health impact on Omicron is unclear thus far, it appears to have fewer implications for domestic travel compared to international. Airlines have been a little more cautious on their outlook for the return of international travel, pending the ongoing impact of Omicron, which thus far seems to be more transmissible and could deter some travelers who are worried about being stuck overseas as a result of a positive test.

Domestic leisure travel has mainly been more resilient throughout the crisis. For the next two weeks, the vast majority of people flying will fit into the domestic leisure category of travelers, including those going on vacation and others categorized as visiting friends and relatives (VFR) travelers. So far, there are few signs that domestic leisure travel is taking a hit as a result of the variant, but the story could change.