By Taylor Rains
U.S. Airlines See Busiest Pandemic-Era Travel Week
The pandemic caused many challenges for the airline industry, such as restructurings, route suspensions and multitudes of cancellations. However, after a busy Father’s Day weekend, carriers are optimistic about their post-COVID recovery. According to JetTip, last week was the busiest pandemic-era week thus far for airports and airlines, which saw record passenger numbers and increased fleet utilization.
Three weeks ago, Memorial Day weekend set the record for air travel since the start of the pandemic. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened an average of 1.78 million passengers per day from Friday to Monday, with nearly 1.96 million screened on Friday. That is six times more passengers than the same day in 2020 and 76% of the number screened in 2019, which was a record year for air travel. However, last week proved to be even busier for airports and passenger airlines, suggesting that the upward trend will continue through the summer and, hopefully, lead to a speedy recovery.
Flight alert service JetTip pulled last week’s passenger numbers to show how industry operations are improving month to month. According to the data from June 13 to June 19, “US passenger airlines carried 73% of pre-crisis passenger volume on 85% of the flights.” This means nearly all US airlines tracked by JetTip experienced their busiest week of air travel since March 2020.
JetTip’s data also showed that most of the biggest U.S. airports, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago’s O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, New York’s JFK, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle Tacoma, Charlotte, Newark Liberty, Houston, Boston, Minneapolis and Detroit, also experienced their busiest week since the pandemic began. Notably, Chicago O’Hare reached a milestone of once again being the busiest airport in the United States by number of departures.
The TSA backs up the data, having screened an average of 1.91 passengers per day last week, compared to 1.84 million the week before and 1.73 million the week leading up to Memorial Day. These numbers are an immense improvement from 2020, which saw an average of just 515,697 passengers for the same week starting June 13, and they are not too far behind 2019 traffic. Furthermore, Father’s Day set the pandemic-era record for the TSA, with over 2.1 million passengers in a single day. So, the numbers are promising, and they’ll likely continue to increase in the coming months.
In response to high travel demand, airlines are adding aircraft back into their fleet. JetTip has been monitoring the number of aircraft operating at least one flight, including revenue, ferry and cargo, in every US airline. Its last update was the week of May 16, but it has run the numbers for the week of June 13 and found that US passenger airlines utilized 92% of their fleet last week. Furthermore, the most significant fleet shift was Southwest, which added a substantial amount of planes back into operation, including 45 Boeing 737 jets, of which 31 are Boeing 737s MAX 8s.
Meanwhile, Delta, American, Spirit, United and Allegiant also made changes: Delta added four Boeing 717-200s and five A220-100s; American added eight Boeing 737-800s and four Boeing 787-800s, but it pulled seven Airbus A321 aircraft out of operations as well; United added five Boeing 737s; Spirit added four Airbus A319s and Allegiant added seven Airbus A320s
In addition to operating a full fleet, Spirit, JetBlue, Frontier, Allegiant, Hawaiian and Sun Country are flying more planes than they did in March 2020, meaning they’ve actually expanded their fleets during the pandemic. And the major carriers, particularly Southwest, are inching closer to pre-COVID fleet utilization.
So, while the pandemic is still affecting many parts of the globe and the U.S. has yet to vaccinate 70% of the country, domestic air travel is bouncing back, and the industry is optimistic that operations will continue to rebound through the summer and fall. Although, after American’s mass cancellations over the weekend due to a pilot shortage, one has to wonder if the travel boom will outpace what airlines can handle.