• The Star Staff

Summer travelers crowd US airports despite coronavirus concerns


By Daniel E. Slotnik


More travelers passed through U.S. airports Sunday than at any time since the start of the pandemic, federal data show, suggesting that the desire to get away this summer remains strong in the face of discouraging coronavirus news.


About 2.2 million people passed through security checkpoints at airports in the United States, nearly three times as many as the same day a year ago, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration. That was still half a million short of the same day in 2019, before the pandemic, and about 300,000 short of July 21, 2019, which was also a late-July Sunday.


The number of travelers continues to grow even though reported coronavirus infections are rising, particularly in areas with low rates of vaccination.


R. Carter Langston, a spokesperson for the TSA, said that the number of travelers screened was hovering just below 2019 levels, even though business and international travel have not recovered ground lost during the pandemic.


“We’ve seen a steady drumbeat of interest among travelers,” Langston said.


The number of domestic travelers is growing even though there are fewer flights for them to take. U.S. airlines are expected to operate about 615,000 domestic flights this month, down more than 14% from July 2019, according to an analysis of flight schedules from Cirium, an aviation data provider.


The number of passengers on domestic flights has climbed for months as vaccinations have risen and the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths have declined.


The number of air travelers July 1 and 2 — just before Independence Day — was actually greater in 2021 than in 2019, TSA data showed. (The TSA noted that more people traveled over the entire holiday weekend in 2019.)


“We’re back traveling again,” President Joe Biden said in a July 4 address from the South Lawn of the White House. “We’re back seeing one another again.”


The Biden administration’s efforts to convince more of the country to get inoculated have faced major headwinds. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that as of Monday, just over 68% of the country’s adult population had received at least one shot.


Reported cases of the coronavirus, hospitalizations and deaths are all trending upward, and states with low rates of vaccination, like Arkansas, Missouri and Nevada, are battling outbreaks as the highly contagious delta variant spreads around the country.


Officials warned of a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” last week, and the Biden administration announced earlier this month that it would send “surge response teams” to states that need help.


The CDC retained many coronavirus precautions for travelers on public transportation, like mask wearing, even as it relaxed them in other areas. There have been thousands of reports of unruly passengers acting out against mask mandates, particularly on airplanes.


Langston said that the TSA had seen about 3,000 mask-related incidents across different modes of public transportation since the federal mask rule went into effect last winter, which he called “a relatively insignificant number compared to the millions of travelers each day affected by the mask mandate.”