Week after week, the United States air travel market continues to recover. On Friday, June 11th, for the first time since March 2020, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) notched over two million passengers entering a security checkpoint screening. This incredible number is indicative of the strength of leisure travelers in 2021 and a testament to the ongoing rebound of the aviation industry.
US hits two million passengers in a day
On Friday, June 11th, 2,028,961 passengers entered a TSA screening checkpoint. Since March 8th, 2020, this was the first time that passenger numbers exceeded two million in one day.
The chart below shows the incredible rise in passenger numbers from March 1st through June 11th:
As you can see, the US has finally hit two million in a day, but numbers came incredibly close to that marker on some days. About four days in the last month have come within striking distance of the two million per day milestone. All of those days were around peak leisure travel holidays or weekends. The lead-up to this milestone was the Memorial Day holiday at the end of May.
Where does the recovery stand?
Comparing 2019 traffic levels to 2021 traffic levels shows a narrowing gap, but there is still room to go. The TSA data comparing 2021 numbers to 2019 looks at the same weekday (not the same date) in 2019 to give a more accurate picture.
The chart above shows that the gap between the passenger numbers has significantly narrowed. However, 2019 saw more consistency in notching over two million passengers in a day. In fact, 2019 was one of the best years on record for the airline industry.
It may be more helpful to consider this in terms of percentage. The chart below shows the percentage of travelers recorded in 2021 compared to before the crisis. For example, 75% means that that date in 2021 compared to the same weekday two years prior saw 75% as many passengers go through a security checkpoint in 2021 compared to 2019 (so, if, say 1.875 million passengers were screened on a day in 2021, that same weekday in 2019 saw 2.5 million passengers enter a security checkpoint).
There is one anomaly, and that comes in May, where the number hits 90%. This Sunday in 2021 lines up with the Memorial Day holiday in 2019. The Sunday of the Memorial Day holiday weekend is typically a low traveler day, as passengers tend to wait until Monday or Tuesday to return home. With fewer passengers on that day in 2019 and Sundays in 2021 being heavy traveler days, it contributes to the inflated percentage.
Other than that, there has been a significant recovery in air travel. US passenger numbers are still down roughly 25% in raw numbers. That can be explained by some continued hesitancy in travel and the absence of a widespread return of business travelers. International travel, especially to Europe and Asia, remains restricted, contributing to a decline in passenger numbers.
Room for improvement
2019 passenger levels are a benchmark for the recovery. Using these levels, the US still has some ways to go. Fortunately, numbers are going in the right direction. The biggest area of improvement lies on weekdays. While passenger numbers are trending upwards on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, these days are heavy business travel days.
Heavy weekend travel is surely helping airlines, though the return of weekday travel will also lead to more sustainable operating economics as higher yield business travelers take to the skies. Most airlines expect a continued recovery of business travel, with the third and fourth quarters proving key in seeing those passengers return to the skies.
The next “benchmark” the US airline industry needs to hit is a more sustained two million passengers in a day mark. Hitting it once in June and then never again through the rest of the summer would be bad news for the industry and signal a continuation of the crisis. However, all signs point toward a return in air traffic, which bodes well for passenger numbers through the end of June and into July and August.
The return of passengers has been relatively quick, but the travel industry ramp-up to cater to those passengers has been slower. While airlines are busy adding more flights, there are limitations regarding hotel availability, rental car availability, and shortages in labor to staff the lines at TSA checkpoints, check-in counters, and at many restaurants and tourist attractions.
With demand continuing to rise, industry capacity now needs to follow and focus on handling the volume of returning traffic. The TSA is boosting its efforts to hire more staff, and the airlines have also turned toward volunteers and resumed hiring to support the recovery.
Are you planning summer travel this year? Where are you going? Let us know in the comments!