More Americans have resumed flying as sustained passenger numbers through March and into April above one million passengers in a day is a promising sign for airlines. Even after the popular spring break and Easter holiday weekends, passenger numbers have not slipped, showing a sustained appetite for leisure travel outside of peak travel periods.
For nearly a month, the US has seen consistent daily passenger numbers above one million passengers in a day per TSA numbers. In fact, the last day that fewer than one million passengers stepped on an airplane was on March 10th, when 974,221 passengers passed through a TSA security checkpoint.
Daily numbers from March 1st through April 9th are shown below:
The graph also shows some volatility in day-to-day passenger numbers. Tuesdays and Wednesdays consistently see slightly lower passenger numbers than other days. Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays, and Mondays are typically heavier leisure travel days. Saturdays take a slight dip, as leisure travelers prefer to maximize their time off work or school.
Where the recovery stands
The TSA also releases passenger data from the same day of the week (not the same date) from 2019. This provides better insight as to how daily numbers compare with what they are normally supposed to be. Looking at data only from April 1st through April 9th, 2021, compared to the same weekday in 2019, some recovery trends are clear.
Since the end of March, passenger numbers in 2021 have consistently been around 55-65% of 2019-levels. This compares to around 50% from the first half of March, with some days as low as 38% of 2019-levels.
Airlines have reacted accordingly. Allegiant Air has expanded its capacity. Plenty of airlines are seizing on recent positive booking trends and growing their summer schedules in anticipation of further passenger growth.
What is driving the recovery, and will it continue?
The public health crisis has loomed large over whether passengers are willing to travel by air or not. Passenger numbers were heavily depressed through 2020. However, in the early days of the second quarter of 2021, coming off a strong end to the first quarter, things are starting to look up.
Case counts in the United States are much lower than what they were in the high-peak days in November, December, and January. Steep declines in case counts through March led many to grow confident in booking spring break vacations, and airlines happily responded.
The other factor leading airlines to expect a much better summer is a growing increase in vaccinations. After a slow start, vaccines have been administered at a quickening pace. Now, the US is averaging over three million doses per day, including those who are getting their first dose and those getting their second.
Airlines are hoping that vaccines are going to help unlock international travel. Iceland, for example, has already announced it is scrapping border restrictions for vaccinated tourists. Greece and Thailand, two other tourism hotspots, have also outlined plans for welcoming visitors, with fewer restrictions for vaccinated travelers.
The combination of an increase in vaccinations, a decline in case counts, and more confidence in travel across the country is expected to compound into a summer surge. With most borders still looking like they will remain closed, much of that surge is expected to be domestic. However, domestic load factors should remain lower amid overcapacity in the market.
Not everyone will see lower fares, however, as the overcapacity remains restricted in many leisure markets. Still, with much of the country connecting through major hubs, airlines can command a slight premium there, leading to an increase in fares. Some of the best routes expected for low fares this summer are very competitive nonstop options. Coupled with structurally slow reactions from airlines to demand surges, then some passengers may be priced out of taking a summer vacation. But, many airlines are hoping to get back to profitability before the end of the year.