Holiday airport crowds broke records. Could they signal a return to travel?

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In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, travel screeched to a halt in the United States. In April, airports were devoid of their usual crowds, with ghostly security checkpoints seeing a mere 4 percent of typical traveler volumes that month. Daily passenger levels — which in 2019 were usually around 2 to 3 million travelers daily — dipped to their lowest levels in a decade; a mere 100,000 travelers passed through airports most days in April.

But the major break in travel did not last long.

Despite the spring’s drop-off in travelers, the typical summer days that drew crowds before the pandemic were again seeing their usual influx, according to the Transportation Security Administration. And by fall and winter, even as rising cases topped those in April that triggered shutdowns and states of emergency, the number of daily passengers screened by the TSA continually crept back up.

The busiest day of the pandemic thus far has been Sunday, Jan. 3, when 1.3 million travelers passed through TSA checkpoints, heading home from holiday gatherings and vacations. And overall, travel has been trending back up for months now despite rising coronavirus cases. In October, TSA saw its first 1 million passenger day since March. Four more came in November around the Thanksgiving holiday period. In the two weeks around Christmas, 11 days hit that benchmark.

“We saw an uptick in the number of travelers for Memorial Day Weekend, the July 4th holiday, Labor Day Weekend, Columbus Day Weekend, and then again around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday periods,” TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an email. “What we’ve seen is the usual pre-pandemic type of travel patterns during the 2020 holidays.”

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the record-breaking travel numbers over the holiday season a “predictable” problem for the United States in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He also said the influx would probably lead to a rise in covid-19 deaths in the United States

While the busy travel periods drove coronavirus cases up, U.S. airports still saw less overall traffic in 2020 than the year before. The total number of passenger screenings for 2020 is 324 million — 61 percent fewer than the total for 2019, according to Farbstein.

While there’s plenty of distance to go in a return to normal flying levels, experts are predicting the number of travelers will continue to climb. Clayton Reid, chief executive of travel marketing firm MMGY Global, predicts air travel will see a steep climb by mid-2021, following spring break demand and broader vaccine rollout.

After nearly one year of grounded travel, “there’s no reason why travel sentiment shouldn’t continue to grow significantly, but the one question mark will be international travel,” Reid said, because of border closures and potential for destinations to require vaccinations.

Reid noted that occupancy data for hotels and rentals signals that travelers are vacationing again at warmer locations that are open, such as Mexico and the Caribbean.

“The numbers will probably continue to grow in the first quarter of 2021, even as vaccines are still not deployed,” Reid said. He also noted that spring break could be the next banner period for travel crowds, similar to the holiday period we just experienced.

Delta chief executive Ed Bastian recently wrote in a company memo that he expects coronavirus vaccines to generate a greater return to travel, according to the Associated Press, and he predicted the company will again be generating cash flow by the spring.

TSA’s Farbstein, however, said it is anyone’s guess when air travel will roar back to prior levels. Because of the uncertainty around travel, TSA is not projecting any numbers or preparing for an influx in security screenings.

“Due to many variables — most especially during the pandemic — we are not making travel volume predictions,” Farbstein said in an email. “Airlines are offering no-fees to rebook; people are purchasing tickets in the last minute; business travelers are still zooming/conference calling; states are imposing restrictions that are likely to impact people’s last-minute decisions to travel to those states.”

“We believe that people, when they’re asked if they’re going to travel, may say no even if they are intending to because of this notion of travel shaming, a societal pressure not to travel,” Reid said. “People are planning travel and doing it anyway; they’re just not sharing it as they would normally.”