Now that the US is 11 days into July, it is clear that summer leisure travelers are out in full force, and airlines continue to see some strong passenger numbers. US airlines are getting back to profitability, more and more planes are going out full, and even international flights are starting to come back. However, passenger numbers still have some room to go to get back to 2019 levels.

Alaska Airlines has asked office management staff to volunteer as baggage handlers due to a staff shortage while it faces increasing passenger numbers. Photo: Getty Images

How passenger counts look in the United States

Since the start of the crisis, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been providing daily passenger screening numbers to show the state of the industry. To start, here’s a graph of passenger counts in 2021 from May 29th through July 10th (the last available date with data at the time of writing):

TSA Numbers
The graph of TSA numbers from the end of May through early July. Data: TSA | Graph: Simple Flying

As usual, there are variations in day-to-day traffic. The peak travel days typically occur around the weekends and the major holidays. For example, July 4th – American Independence Day – fell on a Sunday this year. While Sundays are typically a heavy travel day, with the holiday weekend, passengers preferred to spend the extra day out and about or with family, leading to a relatively weak Sunday, though not something that should be considered evidence of slipping, stalling, or sliding passenger numbers.

There has been a slight increase in passengers overall from the end of May through July. That can be attributed largely to more schools closing, leading families to go out on vacation and, to some extent, the reopening of international borders, allowing for greater tourism.

Passengers Getty
One of the telltale signs of the recovery are long lines and crowding at airports again as passengers return to the skies. Photo: Getty Images

Compared to 2019

Compared to the same data range from 2019, passenger numbers have made a healthy recovery. Note that the TSA looks at data from the same weekday in 2019. So instead of looking at July 4th to July 4th numbers, the TSA instead shows July 4th, 2021, numbers compared to the same Sunday two years ago.

2019 vs 2021 numbers
2021 vs. 2019 passenger numbers. Data: TSA | Graph: Simple Flying

Because of the way the TSA compares data, there is an anomaly around the July 4th weekend. Nevertheless, looking away from the holiday weekends, the industry is seeing passenger numbers hover in the upper 70% range, with some days hitting over 80% of 2019-levels.

Room to grow, but also room to prepare

Passenger numbers have grown from roughly 65-70% of 2019 levels to 75-80% numbers from the end of May and early June to July. This is a welcome increase for airlines, but it has put some pressure and strain on the airline industry.

First and foremost, airlines have faced some high-profile cancellations this summer. Whether it because of weather, one of the more common reasons has been crew and staff shortages for handling the influx of passengers, baggage, and larger aircraft operating more domestic flights.

Passengers TSA
Even expedited security options, like TSA PreCheck, have experienced longer wait times. Photo: Getty Images

The second point of strain comes at the TSA checkpoints themselves. The TSA set out on a major hiring spree ahead of the summer, though it still has plenty of positions unfilled and is pushing to bring on as many new employees as it can. This sets out a huge problem for airlines and passengers. Long lines have been a huge problem, leading some to miss their flights or face plenty of stress.

What this time is more about is creating a buffer for when numbers get back to 2019 levels. The ramp-up continues, but there are not seismic week-to-week increases in passengers. This is a time when the TSA and airlines should continue – and are continuing  – to add employees to their payroll and keep them around as passengers have come back.

Have you flown in the last few weeks? Do you have summer plans to travel? Let us know in the comments!

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