U.S. air travel falls to 6-month low as Covid infections, travel restrictions hinder recovery

Travelers pass through O’Hare International Airport on December 23, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson | Getty Images

U.S. airport screenings fell to the lowest level in more than six months as new Covid-19 infections climb and the Biden administration introduces new travel restrictions.

The Transportation Security Administration screened just 468,933 people at U.S. airports on Tuesday, down 71% from a year ago when more than 1.6 million people went through those checkpoints. It was the fewest number of screenings since July 4, TSA said.

The CEOs of Delta Air Lines and United Airlines recently warned that the industry faces a difficult start to 2021. Executives expect it to take several more months before more Covid-19 inoculations fuel a significant rebound in travel demand. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines will report results and their 2021 outlook on Thursday.

In addition to a slow vaccine rollout, air travel demand is further challenged by increased travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. The Biden administration this week extended an entry ban on most non-U.S. citizens who have recently been in Brazil, the U.K. and much of Europe, and added South Africa to those rules as virus mutations from those areas spread.

The administration this week also started requiring travelers, including U.S. citizens, to show proof of a recent negative Covid test before boarding flights to the United States. A senior Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official on Tuesday said the government is also weighing whether to require Covid tests before domestic flights.