COVID-19: Analyzing TSA Data for Travel Numbers

Much has been said of how then pandemic has affected aviation. Flights have been scaled back. Airlines have gone out of business. Employees are out of a job. Unfortunately, this is all just the very real situation we are faced with. Just how bad has it all been? Well, the TSA has been posting numbers daily of how many people pass through TSA check points each day. For example, on March 1, 2020, 2.28 million passengers went through TSA security. This was compared to 2.3 million the year before. That is ~99.1% of the flight load (or a decrease of 0.9%). Well, from the data, it can be concluded that there is a recovery even if it is extremely slow.

March for the TSA

March was the beginning of the pandemic. At the beginning of the month, flight loads remained close to 90% of the year prior. By March 9, however, this had dropped to fallen to 80%. While a significant drop, this was not going to be the worst of it. Just a week later, stay at home orders were beginning to be enforced. Also at this time was when the public became aware of just how serious the virus was.

On March 16, only 1.3 million passengers had passed by TSA Checkpoints. This was compared to 2.5 million passengers the year before. Percentage wise, only 51% of travelers were flying in America compared to 2019. In any other normal year, this would have been ringing alarm bells everywhere. In 2020? This was as good as aviation would get for the foreseeable future. 

Fast forward a week later. On March 23, flyers had dropped down to 454,516 travelers. This was compared to 2.5 million the year before. In any other year, this would be peak travel time. University spring break would be just ending and all other schools would be starting spring break. But, only 17.8% of travelers compared to 2019 went through TSA checkpoints. Things would only get worse from here. On March 31, TSA only handled 146,348 passengers compared to over 2 million. This meant that percentage wise, travel had dropped down to 7.2% from the year prior.

April for the TSA

April brought new lows to travel. On April 14th, the lowest number of travelers went through security. In fact, a frighteningly low number of just 87,534 passengers were flying. America has likely not seen numbers this low since 9/11. The difference? A quicker recovery then we will see with this pandemic. Just how alarming is 87 thousand flyers? This was just 3.97% of flying compared to 2019. No wonder airlines were grounding planes. This was also around the time when stricter restrictions began to be put in place. New York was dead in the middle of a horrific scene. And then, on April 18, South African Airways went bankrupt and entered voluntary administration. 

From those startling low numbers, there began a slow recovery. On April 23, over 110,000 travelers went through security since April 5. Then, on the last day of April, over 150,000 people used security checkpoints in America. Of course, this was still only 6.1% compared to the year prior, but being over 150K was important for aviation. Why? Because this was close to double of the lowest point reached on April 14th. April 30 also marked the first time in a month (since March 30 specifically) that there were over 150K travelers. For aviation experts, this was the first sign of a glimmer of hope. 

May for the TSA

The month of May has been trying for everyone. For the majority of the world, we have been stuck at home for over 2 months now. Especially with the nice weather coming out, it has been harder to sit at home and not being able to enjoy the good weather with friends and family. Travel numbers have reflected that. On May 8, not only did travelers pass the 200,000 mark, but hit 215,645. This represented 8.3% of people going through security compared to the year before. Of course, this is still extremely low. For an industry where a drop of 5% can be really alarming, it is ironic that just over 8% represents a bright spot.

Yesterday was another new high. On May 17, 2020, TSA checkpoint travel numbers hit over a quarter of a million. Percentage wise, this represents 9.7% of the numbers of 2019. Again, this represents a slow rise on the whole. If this slow growth rate continues, we can expect to be over 10% in about a week or so. By those projections, we should be able to hit about 350K by the end of the month. This comes with the good and the bad. The good? It is becoming more safe to travel again, and there are signs of recovery. The bad? This could open to doors to the reintroduction of the virus.

Where does travel go from here?

There really is no telling. For aviation experts, these numbers can produce graphs that can show a lot of information. For airlines, numbers like this can represent when to reintroduce route. Of course, more detailed numbers are likely to be available to airlines. However, the numbers on a whole can give the big picture. Staying at home is slowly working and in certain places across the world, recovery is coming. In Slovenia, the pandemic is over.  South Korea has resumed professional sports leagues. In Taiwan, limited numbers of fans are allowed in attendance at pro sports events. 

For aviation, this means that some long haul routes will likely resume soon. Air Canada is expected to resume operations between Canada and the USA later this week. By June 1, the number of destinations will have significantly gone up, and slowly, destinations will see flights return. However, this does not really mean flight loads will return to where they were in February and early March. But, this does show that soon, we will be able to travel. For now, we will stay at home in solidarity. 

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