US air travel rises to highest levels yet since pandemic hit

The number of people flying in the United States has eclipsed the year-ago level for the first time in the pandemic period, although travel remains deeply depressed from 2019.

The Transportation Security Administration said 1.34 million people passed through U.S. airport checkpoints on Sunday, topping the 1.26 million people that TSA screened on the comparable Sunday a year ago.

It marked the fourth straight day that TSA saw more than 1 million people pass through its checkpoints. That has not happened since March 2020, when travel was collapsing as the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. grew rapidly and governments enacted more travel restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.

However, Sunday’s screenings were still 45% lower than on the comparable day in 2019, and screenings in March are running 53% lower than the same period two years ago.

Several airlines report that after dismal sales in January and February, more people have bought tickets to travel in spring or summer as infection rates decline and more people get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said Monday that bookings began picking up five or six weeks ago.

Since the pandemic hit, air travel has picked up a few times — mostly around holidays — only to drop back down. This time, the recovery “seems like it’s real,” Bastian said on a J.P. Morgan investor conference.

Airline stocks rose in morning trading. American Airlines rose nearly 9%, United Airlines was up more than 6%, Delta gained more than 3% and Southwest Airlines added 1%.