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Almost every day over the past three weeks the number of people flying in the U.S. has reached a record low as the pandemic kept people home. But on April 7, the levels crossed a stark dividing line: fewer than 100,000 people.
The steady and sustained fall in passengers — now 95% below levels a year ago — hasn’t been seen since the dawn of the jet age in the early 1960s, say experts who follow aviation trends.
Air travel in the U.S. fell to zero for a handful of days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the industry was depressed for months. But the drop wasn’t nearly as prolonged as the impacts so far from COVID-19, which has prompted widespread stay-at-home orders.
“I don’t think there is any question that this is the largest sustained drop,” said John Hansman, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on aviation.
Airlines have been cutting their schedules as they face billions of dollars in losses, but not at the same rate as the plunge in customers.
On April 7, only 97,130 people passed through security gates at U.S. airports. Because that includes airport workers and flight crews, the number of passengers is even lower, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
The total is less than what some of the country’s largest airports screen on a busy summer day, TSA spokesman Mark Howell said in a tweet.
Yesterday, @TSA officers screened 97,130 passengers nationwide. That’s less than what some of the country’s larger airports screened on a busy summer day last year.— Mark Howell (@TSAMedia_MarkH) April 8, 2020
Since March 16, the number of people willing to fly on an airliner has fallen all but two days, according to figures compiled by the TSA.
There were 1.3 million people still flying on that day, or 47% below the equivalent day in 2019. Since then, levels have marched downward dramatically, according to the TSA.
The TSA, which wasn’t created until after the Sept. 11 attacks, has only collected reliable passenger data for about 10 years, spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in a tweet.
Each new low in recent weeks has been an agency record for the fewest number of people to go through screening, Farbstein said.
The virus and its impact on aviation has triggered massive economic uncertainty for airlines and their employees, as well as airport workers and contractors. The CARES Act, a $2 trillion economic stimulus plan from the federal government, included more than $70 billion in loans and payroll subsidies for the industry.
A rebound in air travel could be slow to materialize, a new poll by Public Opinion Strategies suggests. Fewer than half of Americans say they’d be willing to fly within six months of their lives “returning to normal,” according to results released by the firm on April 7.
People who have opted not to fly, often heeding government stay-at-home orders, say they are also suffering. In many instances, they are only entitled to credits for future travel and can’t get refunds.
Hansman said the decline in passengers is unlike any previous shock following economic downturns, terrorist attacks, wars or other events since the start of long-range jet travel.
Economic data from previous downturns suggests that the practice of lowering fares to spur demand has led to long periods of unprofitability for airlines. For more than a decade after 2001, airlines went through waves of bankruptcies, layoffs and mergers before rebounding.
“The scary thing here is that there is no clear trajectory for the recovery build up,” Hansman said. “Until there is a widespread vaccine — or herd immunity — there will be barriers to travel and it is not clear what the demand will be, but it will be slow.”
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