1 Million U.S. Passengers Just Took to the Skies in a Day. Are Travelers Finally Ready to Fly Again?

The single-day milestone comes six months after air travel began to nosedive in mid-March, illustrating that travelers’ confidence in flying is slowly starting to return. Will the upward trajectory continue?

1 Million U.S. Passengers Just Took to the Skies in a Day. Are Travelers Finally Ready to Fly Again?

Travelers are getting back into the air.

Photo by Shutterstock

On Sunday, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 1.03 million travelers in a single day—the highest number of passengers since air travel went into a freefall in mid-March amid the onset of the pandemic.

On March 17, 2020, the number of air travelers began declining rapidly and bottomed out on April 14, 2020, when just over 87,000 passengers passed through TSA checkpoints, compared to 2.2 million on April 14, 2019.

Since then, the numbers have been very gradually inching back up, but October 18, 2020, marked the first time they broke 1 million since the COVID-19 crisis completely altered our lives and our travels. Those 1.03 million fliers represent 40 percent of the 2.6 million people who were flying on October 18, 2019, a notable increase over the number of air travelers who were flying this summer, when numbers often hovered between just 20 and 30 percent of 2019 figures.

“Although passenger volumes remain well below pre-pandemic levels, the one million single-day passenger volume is a noteworthy development,” TSA stated in a release about the milesone.

New airline COVID study finds transmission risk while flying is “virtually nonexistent”

The milestone comes as airlines are working to position themselves towards recovery—not just survival—as they continue to battle the numerous challenges the pandemic poses, not least of which is the perception that flying presents the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

In an internal memo sent to company officers on October 16, 2020, which was shared with AFAR, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby and president Brett Hart wrote, “Although we have no doubt that the road back to ‘normal’ will be long and hard, our ability to meet this challenge head-on these past few months gives us the confidence now to turn the corner, focus squarely on our recovery and think about how to accelerate on the other side.”

One of the ways United is hoping to accelerate recovery is by getting the message across that flying is not a risk. The airline is leaning on data and independent research to help.

In its internal memo, United cited a new independent study from the U.S. Department of Defense that concludes that the risk of COVID-19 exposure on a plane is virtually nonexistent due to the air filtration systems onboard. After conducting more than 300 tests on United aircraft over a period of six months, the Defense Department found that when a passenger is seated with a mask on, only 0.003 percent of infected air particles can enter that passenger’s breathing zone—even when the plane is completely full.

Other carriers are hoping to calm fliers’ fears by flying under capacity. Four U.S. carriers are still blocking middle seats. Delta is blocking the selection of middle seats and limiting the number of customers per flight through at least January 6, 2021. Alaska is blocking middle seats through at least November 30, 2020. Southwest has an open seating policy and is limiting the number of seats sold. And Hawaiian is blocking middle seats, too, and has not put an end date on its policy.

All of the major U.S. airlines—including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Southwest Airlines—have mandatory mask policies in place with strict enforcement rules.

Despite the magnitude of the impact the pandemic has had on air travel, “We have been encouraged as more customers travel and we are seeing a path of progressive improvement,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian stated in the company’s quarterly earnings release on October 13. Bastian added that Delta now hopes “to accelerate into a post-COVID recovery.”

For fliers heading back into the skies, tips for staying healthy and safe

Ahead of the busy Labor Day weekend in September, TSA issued a notice to travelers addressing the safety measures that have been put in place for air travel across the country.

“For travelers who have not flown since the beginning of the pandemic, the TSA checkpoint experience will be noticeably different as compared to last year,” TSA administrator David Pekoske said in the notice.

To help reduce the spread of COVID-19, TSA officers wear face masks and gloves at all airports, as well as face shields at some airports. Plexiglass shields have been installed at security checkpoints, social-distancing signs remind travelers to maintain a safe six feet from one another, and checkpoint surfaces and equipment are being cleaned and sanitized regularly, TSA reports.

Passengers should expect shorter wait times in security lines—up to half the time compared to last year. TSA recommends arriving at the airport between one to two hours prior to departure as “total time in the screening process will be shorter,” the agency reports. In days of yore, TSA recommended arriving at the airport two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international departure.

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Travelers are asked to wear a mask at the airport but may need to remove the mask briefly to verify their identity while going through security.

TSA has also relaxed one of its main rules regarding carry-on liquids. The agency now allows passengers to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer in their carry-on bags, up from the usual 3.4-ounce allowance—so bring plenty of hand sanitizer (other liquids, gels, and aerosols will still be limited to 3.4 ounces).

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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