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American Airlines JFK Terminal 8 security screening line.American Airlines JFK Terminal 8 check-in. (Photo: Tom Pallini)

TSA Screens Record One Million Passengers in One Day

On Sunday, the TSA screened 1,031,505 passengers – the first time the agency has seen a seven-digit number since March 2020. The numbers are a good sign that air traffic is picking up, but the airlines still have a long way to go before things get even close to normal.

TSA Finally Screens Over 1,000,000 Passengers

TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein announced the news on Twitter, writing, “BREAKING NEWS: @TSA screened 1,031,505 people at security checkpoints nationwide yesterday, Sunday, Oct. 18. It’s the first time volume topped 1 million since the pandemic low point of April 14, when 87,534 people were screened. It’s still 60% lower than one year ago.”

The million passenger mark is a significant milestone for the airline industry, indicating air travel is slowly creeping back. Yesterday’s passenger count is up 5% from the 984,234 passengers screened last Sunday and up 13% from the 900,911 passengers screened two Sundays before. Let’s put these numbers into perspective

  • On the same day last year, 2,606,266 passengers were screened. Yesterday’s number may be a record during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is still 60% less compared to Oct. 18, 2019.
  • During the week of Oct. 12 to Oct. 18, about 6.1 million passengers passed through security checkpoints, making it the highest weekly count since March. During the same period last year, over 17 million passengers were screened.
  • The last time the TSA saw the passenger count in the millions was March 16, 2020, with 1,257,823 passengers screened that day. The numbers trickled down to their lowest point on April 14, 2020, with only 87,534 screened nationwide. On April 14, 2019, 2,208,688 passengers were screened.

Although the number of passengers passing through security checkpoints is significantly less than last year, the surge in traffic is a good sign for airlines. But they shouldn’t get too confident. With no vaccine on the market, no new stimulus bill, and the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, carriers will likely see fluctuations in traffic before numbers consistently rise.

Is Air Traffic Picking Up?

While the million passenger count may indicate air travel is slowly picking up, the rise in coronavirus cases worldwide may force that number to plateau or even decrease again. Numbers across the United States are rising in every state except Hawaii and Vermont and reinstated travel restrictions may lead to a decrease in traffic to some leisure markets.

However, there is no doubt that there will be steady traffic to Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Southern California as the cold weather rolls in, likely keeping TSA numbers in the high 900,000s and low million through the holidays. Last holiday season, the TSA saw record-breaking traffic, with December 1, 2019 setting the record at 2,870,764 passengers screened. There may be a surge in traffic come Thanksgiving and Christmas, but with many families keeping the holidays more low-key this year, numbers may not rise significantly. 

As the new year comes around, the passenger count may slightly drop as January and February are generally low travel months. Though there may be another surge as the one-year mark of the pandemic approaches in March, with spring break reportedly canceled at many universities, numbers will still be significantly lower than 2019.

Is Air Travel Safe During the Pandemic?

When passenger demand plummeted at the start of the pandemic, airports, airlines and federal agencies made significant efforts to keep air travel safe. According to a study done by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the risk of contracting the virus on aircraft is low. The agency’s medical advisor David Powell explained, “The risk of a passenger contracting Covid-19 while onboard appears very low. With only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, that’s one case for every 27 million travelers. We recognize that this may be an underestimate but even if 90% of the cases were unreported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travelers. We think these figures are extremely reassuring. Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread.”

The reason the numbers are reportedly low is likely due to the precautions airlines and airports have taken to minimize the spread. These include high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters used on aircraft, mask mandates at the airport and on airplanes, the natural barrier of the seatback, enhanced cleaning and sanitation and leaving the middle seat unoccupied. Arnold Barnett, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), also conducted a study on the spread of Covid-19 on aircraft. He found that on a full flight, the chance of contracting the virus is 1 in 4,000, but if the middle seat is left open, the risk drops to 1 in 8,000.

As far as measures taken at security checkpoints, the TSA has implemented card readers to scan passenger IDs or passports without the agent handling it. Furthermore, new technology allows agents to see inside passenger carry-on bags without touching or opening them. While these measures help minimize the risk of spread, passengers should still wear masks and practice social distancing when they travel.

Taylor Rains
Taylor Rains
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