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U.S. air travel rises to highest level yet of the pandemic

Travelers at Salt Lake City International Airport
Travelers walk through the Salt Lake City International Airport on March 9.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

As more and more Americans receive their COVID-19 vaccinations, air travel is picking up pace across the U.S., hitting its highest level since the pandemic struck a year ago.

The bump in travel is evident in longer airport security lines and busier traffic on airline websites. The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 1.3 million people both Friday and Sunday — a new high since the coronavirus outbreak. Airlines say they believe the numbers are heading up, with more people booking flights for spring and summer.

“Our last three weeks have been the best three weeks since the pandemic hit, and each week has been better than the one prior,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said Monday.

Airline stocks rose across the board. Shares of the four biggest U.S. carriers hit their highest prices in more than a year.

However, the airlines still have far to go before travel fully returns to pre-pandemic levels.

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While the number of people passing through airport checkpoints has topped 1 million for four straight days, and the seven-day rolling average is the highest of the pandemic, passenger traffic is still down more than 50% in March compared with the same period in 2019.

Hollywood studios have seen their filming costs increase as filmmakers and actors push for perks including flying private to avoid COVID-19.

Parker said American’s bookings are now running just 20% below 2019 levels. A factor appears to be traveler confidence now that more people are getting vaccinated against COVID-19. About 70 million Americans, or 21%, have received at least one dose, and 37 million have completed their vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said Monday that bookings began picking up five or six weeks ago.

Since the pandemic hit, air travel has picked up a few times — mostly around holidays — only to drop back down. This time, the recovery “seems like it’s real,” Bastian said during the same J.P. Morgan investor conference at which Parker spoke.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said his airline would generate “core” cash instead of burning cash for March, and he expects the positive trend to continue in the months ahead.

Authorities around the world are tightening the screws to stop COVID-19 mutations slipping through quarantine models designed to contain a less aggressive virus. Travelers are feeling the squeeze.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said during a Washington Post webcast that his airline could break even by June, “where you have had much of the population vaccinated.”

Southwest said in a regulatory filing that March and April would be better than expected as passenger traffic and fares rise. The airline said people are booking leisure trips to beach and mountain destinations, but business travel is still lagging.


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