Spring break or bust: Millions board flights as pandemic enters second year

Travelers check in for Southwest Airlines flights at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Thursday, March 11. (Photo: Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY)

Travelers who haven’t flown since the coronavirus pandemic began are in for a surprise if they’re expecting empty airports and planes when they return.

Passengers packed planes during the Thanksgiving and year-end holiday rushes despite advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid travel and are now doing so in greater numbers for spring break.

The latest evidence arrived Saturday from the Transportation Security Administration. The agency said it screened 1,357,111 passengers on Friday, on top of 1,284,271 on Thursday as travelers headed out on vacations. With more than half the month to go, March is shaping up to be a strong one for airlines, with passenger counts topping 1 million on seven days so far.

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Friday’s numbers are the highest since the Sunday after New Year’s when 1,327,289 passengers were screened. The totals fell below 90,000 in April 2020 in the early days of the pandemic and didn’t top 1 million again until October.

Passenger counts are still down sharply from pre-pandemic levels. Friday’s figures were down 38% from the same day in 2019, when more than 2.1 million people passed through the TSA checkpoints. On the same day in 2020, passenger counts totaled 1.7 million as travel hadn’t come to a halt yet.

Traveler optimism is rising as more Americans are vaccinated and case counts decline.

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