Friday looks like a heavy airlift day after traffic spiked sharply on Thursday
Friday, the start of Memorial Day weekend, is shaping up to be a relatively busy day for air travel – busy for travel amid the coronavirus crisis, but still around 10% of passengers count on the same date in 2019.
The number of passengers, tracked by the Transportation Security Administration, has increased steadily this week, based on comparisons of trips on the same day of the week. The increase is mainly the result of an increase in domestic leisure travel, according to airline executives. Holiday weekends tend to be peak times for leisure travel.
Thursday was another record-breaking day in passenger return history, as the TSA cleared 318,449 through security. The number was around 12% of the number of people who flew on the same date in 2019, and the highest number of clearances since 331,431 on March 23, a Monday. The sales increased by 35% compared to the previous Thursday.
An American Airlines site used by employees showed the carrier’s system had booked about 66.5% on Friday, which would be a recent record. This could change if the booked passengers do not show up. American carried its largest number of paying passengers since March 22 on Wednesday.
Friday, May 24, 2019, the Friday before Memorial Day last year, was the busiest travel day for Americans last May, airline spokesman Ross Feinstein said. He noted that even if travelers show up as planned tomorrow, American will still carry 80% fewer passengers than a year ago. In 2019, Memorial Day fell on May 27.
American passengers have immense flexibility if they cancel: the credit for the price of the ticket can be used at any time until December 2021.
The TSA cleared 230,367 people on Wednesday, the best Wednesday since March 25. This week also saw the best Monday and the best Tuesday since the last week of March.
However, Wednesday’s tally (which includes airport and airline workers) was still only 9% of the level as of the same date in 2019, down from 8% on Tuesday.
“It’s certainly a lot less gloomy here than it was a few months ago,” Scott Kirby said Wednesday on CNBC, in an interview marking his first day as CEO of United, after taking office as chairman. “In April, we hit rock bottom. TSA figures show a low of 87,534 passengers on Tuesday, April 14, just 4% of the number on the same date a year earlier.
Kirby said United now carried 35,000 to 40,000 passengers a day, better than the April days when it carried 10,000 a day, but not nearly the half a million a day it carried in February before the coronavirus crisis does not upset commercial aviation. Among the passengers, he said, are medical workers and people who “target seriously ill relatives.
“Most of our clients really aren’t discretionary – they need to travel,” Kirby said.
“We’re seeing a lot of pent-up demand,” Kirby said. For example, with the opening of national parks, United has seen “a huge increase in demand” for gateway cities to these parks.
In data released Wednesday, the Airlines for America trade group reported that after increasing 5% in January and February, air travel fell 91% in the week ending May 19. Domestic flights now carry an average of 39 passengers, up from 85 to 100 passengers in January and February, A4A said. And despite some promising signs, recorded net sales fell 98% in the week ending May 10.
In calls to an investor conference on Tuesday, senior executives from American, Delta and United all noted the same trends – a slow recovery in travel, mostly leisure travel as well as essential travel rated by Kirby.
On Delta’s call, CFO Paul Jacobson said the carrier saw “an increase in leisure bookings for domestic travel in June and July.” In June, Delta will add 100 daily departures to what it had planned. These departures will serve “primarily leisure destinations, encountering traffic and (and) some activity in the west,” Jacobson said.
However, he said, any return from business travel is far away. “Companies are going to be very careful when they send people on planes,” he said.
On the call to United, Andrew Nocella, commercial director, said that with the return of business travel lagging behind, “the depth of schedules will not be so important in this world”. It’s the business travelers who want the frequencies that get airlines to schedule flights in 50-seat planes, he noted. “If there is less business traffic, there will be less than 50 spaces.
“When business travel comes back, I think it comes back to our hubs first,” Nocella noted. “Our hubs are located in the largest business centers.
During the US call, Don Casey, senior vice president of revenue, said, “Big business doesn’t travel a lot,” while President Robert Isom noted, “People want to go out and start traveling from a business point of view. We are seeing signs that things are starting to open up.
When the trip returns, “We expect it to be country focused,” Isom said. “It will be a very long time for the international to come back.”