Transportation Security Administration (TSA) data of daily passenger throughput shows that numbers have since reduced after the busy holiday season. Numbers have again dipped below 900,000 passengers in a day, keeping US airlines in a bind as the recovery stays flat.

US passenger numbers slide

About a week ago, US airlines were coming off the single best two weeks in terms of air passenger numbers since March 2020. The 2020 winter holiday surge led to about 18.8 million people stepping onboard an aircraft between December 18th and January 4th.

In the weeks after that, however, numbers have again reverted to their non-holiday low numbers. The data so far for 2021 is:

  • Friday, January 1st: 805,990 passengers
  • Saturday, January 2nd: 1,192,881 passengers
  • Sunday, January 3rd: 1,327,289 passengers
  • Monday, January 4th: 1,080,346 passengers
  • Tuesday, January 5th: 766,594 passengers
  • Wednesday, January 6th: 665,855 passengers
  • Thursday, January 7th: 771,734 passengers
  • Friday, January 8th: 772,471 passengers
  • Saturday, January 9th: 709,444 passengers
  • Sunday, January 10th: 886,536 passengers

While these numbers are just slightly higher than what airlines saw before the winter holiday period, the drop in passenger numbers shows that non-peak travel times will remain especially difficult.

The first quarter can be especially difficult

The first quarter is not always a good one for carriers. There are no major holidays, most people who are traveling during the weekdays are business passengers, and people have not quite started booking travel out in the second, third, or fourth quarters.

This year will be especially difficult. Coming off of a major holiday period and no big holidays or travel seasons in the quarter, airlines tend to take the first quarter as a chance to mold the rest of the year and set the tone for how they will approach the summer and fall.

Most airlines are still keeping capacity low for the month, compared to capacity in the same period in 2019 or even 2020.

Will airlines lose money?

Most airlines will likely continue to lose money in the first quarter. Carriers that do not control their costs and operations will continue to see losses since bookings, most of which are happening close-in to departure, cannot be relied upon to turn a profit.

Delta Air Lines has been especially vocal about getting to cash break-even come spring. Time will tell if the airline can do so, but, like most airlines, Delta will still face a difficult environment.

The bigger issue for the other two of the big three US airlines, United and American, is entering the first quarter with a high average daily cash burn. The airlines will need to continue to manage their costs and raise liquidity where possible. Though, with large amounts of debt, airlines will risk running out of options without taking on more debt than they can afford.

Fourth-quarter and full-year 2020 results, which start coming out this month, will provide a better picture of where airlines stand heading through the first quarter.

For now, these passenger numbers are a worrying sign for carriers. Nearly every airline is relying on a vaccine to help reopen borders– both locally and internationally– to jumpstart travel. 2021 will hopefully be the year when people can be freer with choosing a vacation destination, but a vaccine has only just started to be rolled out across the United States and the rest of the world.

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