Has Coronavirus Air Travel Recovery Stalled?

After the precipitous drop in air travel back in March and April, it’s been good to see the industry recovering as the summer progresses. For a while, the week over week numbers climbed quickly, with over half a million people passing through TSA checkpoints on June 11 for the first time since March 21. My personal guess has been we might hit 1 million daily passengers again near the end of this month.

However, it looks like that may not happen. Based on what we’re seeing now, air travel recovery could be stalling.

Air Travel Recovery After COVID

I’ve been checking the TSA daily passenger throughput nearly every week since late April. This has been the primary way to track air travel recovery, at least here in the United States. The increase in screenings since May has been pretty consistent. Until this week. This week is showing something different.

Here I’ve graphed the number of daily TSA screenings along with a 7-day moving average of the number of screenings per day. Even though the daily numbers fluctuate, the average has been rising, at least until this past week.

I’ve omitted the precipitous drop during most of March to keep from crunching the vertical scale. You can see the low point in mid-April, and then a gentle recovery that begins to really pick up in June. It’s remarkable to me how consistent the weekly pattern was for the weeks during June.

Now that July has arrived, it’s apparent that the trend we were seeing might not continue. The graph has gone flat. I pegged this coming Sunday as the first day we’d hit a million screenings again, but unless a miracle happens, this is out of the question. I’m going to guess that the rising coronavirus numbers in multiple states is main reason recovery is wavering. Typically, Sundays are the peak travel day. Yesterday’s numbers are just shy of the what we saw on July 12. They are also lower than both Thursday and Monday over the July 4 holiday weekend.

What Does This Mean for Fall Travel?

Without a steady stream of business travel, things might not be looking to good for fall travel. I’m sure the airlines have teams of analysts doing their best to understand the trends so that they can plan operations. If nothing changes over the next month, I would expect the daily screenings to drop a bit and then hold a steady, gentle climb, assuming virus recovery does continue.

Even if the airlines see a million TSA screenings per day by Labor Day (there I go being hopeful again), this is still far, far less than the norm. The financial difficulty will still be immense, and there may not be a second bailout to help them manage this crisis. It’s no surprise to me that American Airlines is looking at laying off around 25,000 of their staff. Given the current projections, they certainly won’t be needed.

This is extremely sad to me. The commercial aviation industry had never been stronger, and both Boeing and Airbus had full order books with years of planes to assemble and deliver. Now we’ll be lucky if travel is even a third of what it was this fall. Many airlines don’t see pre-pandemic travel volume coming back until 2023.

Final Thoughts

Two months ago I was very optimistic about where things were headed. The worst of the pandemic appeared to be over, and countries in Europe were starting to recover and open. I figured the U.S. wasn’t too far behind, and things would rebound rapidly. This appeared to be the case in May and June, but with spiking cases in multiple states, a busy end-of-summer for travelers simply won’t happen. Here in California, we’ve even walked back a bit in terms of the reopening plan.

One thing is for certain: whether you’re hitting the skies this summer, planning a road trip instead, or simply going to wait things out, the travel industry will need us again. Tourism and hospitality account for 10% of the global economy. With such a slow recovery, they will be hurting even more than I imagined at the end of all this.

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Has Coronavirus Air Travel Recovery Stalled?