Air Travel Is at Record Highs Since the Pandemic Started—But Is It a Comeback?

With vaccination numbers rising, more airline passengers are hitting the skies

People testing at the airport
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After a year of crippling losses, U.S. airlines believe they can finally see the light at the end of the runway. According to the Transportation Security Administration, TSA screened 1,357,111 passengers on Friday, March 12, 2021. The last time passengers numbers were that high was back on March 15, 2020—two days before the first official stay-at-home orders were executed.

Fast forward a year later and, as of this writing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the U.S. is now jabbing around 2 million people a day, and approximately 121 million shots of the vaccine have found their way into the arms of Americans. All-in-all, vaccination efforts have dosed at least one shot to 24 percent of the population, while 13 percent of the population is already fully vaccinated. The newest plan? Make every American eligible for the vaccine by May 1, 2021, and reach some return to normalcy by Independence Day.

Miraculously, it looks like the struggling airline industry may already be en route to recovery. While there have been increases in air traveler numbers here and there over the last year, they’ve mostly been tied to holiday travel and failed to sustain any real gains—until now.

Recent passenger numbers are steadily increasing. On March 19, 2021, a reported 1,468,516 passengers made their way through TSA’s security checkpoints. Though that number is still about 1 million-shy from pre-pandemic passenger numbers reported on the same day in 2019, it’s well over twice as many as the meager 620,883 travelers who passed through on March 19, 2020—or even some days from just last month.

While things may be looking up for the airline industry, the Federal Aviation Administration is cognizant of a possible downside. Higher traveler numbers may also breed more opportunities for mask non-compliers and aggressive passengers—a concern the FAA is taking very seriously. So seriously that on March 16, 2021, FAA administrator Steve Dickson released a statement that the agency will continue its zero-tolerance policy for unruly passengers which was originally set to expire at the end of March.

“I have decided to extend the FAA’s unruly-passenger zero-tolerance policy as we continue to do everything we can to confront the pandemic,” Dickson said in a statement. “The policy directs our safety inspectors and attorneys to take strong enforcement action against any passenger who disrupts or threatens the safety of a flight, with penalties ranging from fines to jail time. The number of cases we’re seeing is still far too high, and it tells us urgent action continues to be required.”

There have been more than 500 airline-reported cases of disruptive passengers since late-December 2020. In January, the Associated Press reported that the FAA was reviewing close to 450 cases. For anyone assuming the FAA’s threat of civil penalties was an idle one, they have already begun doling out retroactive repercussions—and, as promised, they aren’t cheap. So far, proposed fines we’ve heard about range between $12,000 to $27,500, all for incidents that took place on planes as far back as October 2020.

Even so, Delta CEO Ed Bastian calls the bump in business a substantial glimmer of hope for the industry. During a presentation at the JP Morgan Industrials Conference on March 15, 2021, Bastian said the airline is projecting a 40 percent increase in revenue for March 2021 over the previous month, an even higher rise in revenue than the usual seasonal spike expected in pre-pandemic times. Heck, Delta even expects to break even for March—or at least get “pretty darn close.”

“We’ve seen some glimmers of hope over the course of the last year, but they’ve been false, I think, in most regards, but this seems like it’s real, it seems substantive,” Bastian said at the conference. “We’re in a much, much better place than we’ve been in quite a period of time.”

It turns out, Delta isn’t the only airline finally feeling optimistic. In fact, Alaska Airlines and United are reportedly both expecting to see positive cash flow—or to at least not go into the red—as early as the end of this month, too.

While it may be too early to officially call it a comeback (and whether the spike in numbers is from growing vaccination numbers, pandemic fatigue, seasonality, or a combination of factors), it’s encouraging proof that air travel numbers are steadily—and finally—getting back off the ground.