Air travel hit a new pandemic high over New Year’s weekend. Now comes the hard part

Passengers at the Miami International Airport

Leslie Josephs | CNBC

U.S. travel hit a new pandemic high on Sunday, capping a surge in holiday demand despite new Covid-19 infection levels.

More than 1.3 million people passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at U.S. airports on Sunday, 55% of the 2.4 million people TSA screened a year earlier but still the highest volume since March 15.

Air travel spiked around Christmas and New Year’s holidays despite warnings from health officials to avoid travel to help curb the spread of Covid-19. December was the deadliest month in the U.S. for the virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a White House advisor and one of the country’s leading infectious disease specialists, has warned about a further increase in Covid-19 infections following the holidays.

Air travel is still around half of last year’s levels and airline executives have warned they expect demand to wane outside of peak holiday periods.

Vaccines have fueled some optimism about a recovery but the timing of when travelers will return en masse is still unclear.

“As difficult as 2020 was, in many ways I expect the next 12 months to be even more challenging,” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian wrote to employees on New Year’s Day. “Just as we’ve never experienced a global pandemic in our history, we’ve also never had to create and execute a plan for recovery from one. We will be building a new Delta centered on a medical and economic recovery that hasn’t yet taken shape.”