If anyone is looking for an indicator of just how much people want life to return to normal and the COVID-19 pandemic to be over, all they need to do is look at how many people took to the skies over Memorial Day weekend.
The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) reports that air travel hit a new pandemic era high. In total, air travel was up nearly 450% from last Memorial Day. When you put that percentage in real numbers, it adds up to more than 7 million travelers passing through airport security checkpoints over the holiday weekend. Friday was the busiest of the four days, with a pandemic record of 1.96 million passengers, airport workers, and flight crew passing through security checkpoints.
We’re still a far cry from the pre-pandemic levels, though. TSA officials say officers are screening approximately 1.6 million people daily across the country. That’s a significant increase from last year, but it’s still down 36% from 2019, when about 2.5 million people were screened daily during summer peak travel. AAA’s Memorial Day holiday travel forecast also predicted 60% more travelers than last year, but that’s still nearly 6 million fewer than before the pandemic.
Filling up planes
Scott Keyes at Scott’sCheapFlights told ConsumerAffairs that hopeful travelers shouldn't think that planes will have plenty of seating space just because the number of travelers is down when compared to before the pandemic.
“Though the number of flyers is still down 20-30% compared to pre-pandemic levels, on average planes are just about as full as they were in 2019. That’s because airlines have hundreds of planes that are either in storage or retired, and have yet to fully replenish their schedules,” Keyes said.
“You can expect nearly- or entirely-full planes if you’re traveling to tourist favorites like Hawaii, Florida, or Cancun this summer. With so much pent up demand for travel over the past 15 months, crowds are likely to persist until at least late August.”
Working on expediting the screening process
TSA was well-prepared for the rush of travelers. The agency claims it processed all those people in less than four minutes per person.
“We are ready to handle the expected increase in travelers this summer,” said Bart R. Johnson, TSA’s Federal security Director for Upstate New York. “In addition, TSA is committed to supporting a healthy and secure environment for airline passengers, TSA personnel and airport employees,” he said. “For those who plan to fly this summer, I’d like for them to be aware that the checkpoint experience will look different if they have not been to the airport since the start of the pandemic.”
Johnson said the “new normal” at airport security checkpoints includes both security officers and passengers being required to wear masks and maintain socially-distant space. One nuance that might throw off returning fliers is that they will be asked to remove their masks for a few seconds so that an officer can match their face to the photo on their ID when they approach the podium where their travel documents are reviewed.
The TSA is also reducing a touchpoint at the travel document podium. For the time being, passengers are being asked to place their own ID into the credential authentication technology scanner instead of handing it over to a security officer.