Air travel hit bottom April 14, with just 87,534 people clearing TSA security checkpoints in the United States. TSA checkpoint throughput data has been a daily proxy for the health and recovery of the U.S. airline industry. It isn’t a perfect metric – the number of people screened isn’t actually the same as the number of passengers – but it tracks closely, and these are numbers that are updated daily.
TSA data shows that Monday, June 22 exceeded 600,000 people – for the first time since March 19.
This represents about 22% of prior year air traffic. That puts things in perspective – air travel was still off more than 77%. However it was also the highest percentage of prior year travel we’ve seen in three months as well.
Overall how travel recovers will depend on developments with the economy and the virus. And while new cases have plateaued in the U.S. at the moment overall they aren’t falling – indeed, there’s been an uptick, with cases declining in some areas and rising rapidly in others.
American Airlines made a big bet for July on Florida (where they’re the largest airline) and the Gulf Coast. These are precisely areas of rapid spread. We won’t shut down whole economies again, but are likely to see more targeted policies. It’s unclear yet how that’s going to affect travel.
Moreover airlines have been offering flexible travel policies, waiving change fees, so it’s not clear how currently-booked travel will translate into passengers. We are currently in the midst of what is traditionally peak summer travel season, and traditionally business travel plays a more important role for airlines come the fall – but business travel will not return this year to a significant degree. We aren’t just in the midst of a pandemic, but also a sharp recession, and airlines disproportionately take it on the chin from economic downturns as well.
So while air travel is headed in the right direction, it isn’t happening as much as it might seem and the pace of recovery may not sustain past summer.