The aviation industry welcomed a milestone change in public health policy on Friday as passenger numbers continued a steep climb nationwide.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its travel guidance for Americans, saying recent studies have shown that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can travel safely.
Those people who are at least two weeks past receiving their final dose of the vaccine may travel in the U.S. and do not need to test for COVID or self-quarantine, the agency said.
“With millions of Americans getting vaccinated every day, it is important to update the public on the latest science about what fully vaccinated people can do safely, now including guidance on safe travel,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
The guidance shift did not prompt any immediate changes in health and safety policies that have been developed by the industry over the past year. Masks are still mandatory on all U.S. airlines, for example, and inside all U.S. airports.
Also, the change has limited effect on international travel. Policies of destination countries as well as local U.S. jurisdictions remain in place regarding proof of vaccination, negative COVID tests, self-quarantining and other measures. Travelers should check specific requirements with their airlines and their destination cities.
Planes filling up
The CDC’s announcement is already having an impact on commercial air travel, which began surging in March across the U.S.
The Transportation Security Administration has processed more than 1 million passengers through security checkpoints each day since March 11, the clearest sign yet that the industry is experiencing a sustained rebound.
While those numbers are still roughly half of what they were pre-pandemic, they are still drastically better than the freefall drop the industry experienced in 2020; Sunday’s total of 1,543,474 travelers dwarfed the 122,029 from the same date one year prior.
Pittsburgh International Airport is seeing similar growth in passenger traffic. On Saturday, nearly 6,500 people moved through the TSA security checkpoint, compared to 467 on the same date in 2020, an increase of nearly 1,400 percent.
Bookings for at least one carrier reflect this skyrocketing demand. In a regulatory filing last week, American Airlines said average bookings for the seven days after March 26 were at 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
And that was before the CDC’s announcement, which aviation consultant Henry Harteveldt said “lit reservations on fire.”
“Airlines were telling me they were already seeing strong growth before this, but on Friday bookings became far more active, mostly for summer,” said Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group.
The pandemic forced airlines and passengers to become nimbler in virtually every aspect of travel. Travelers typically book airline tickets months in advance of departure, but over the past year many travelers began reserving tickets two weeks or less before takeoff because of ever-evolving travel restrictions—a sea change in consumer behavior for the industry.
That trend is beginning to subside, Harteveldt said, noting that airlines are recently seeing an increase in the volume of reservations made 60 days or more in advance of departure. More people are “shopping” for tickets for the summer travel season, he added.
The lure of a vacation is so strong that United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby compared it to pre-pandemic levels at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit last week.
“Domestic leisure demand has almost entirely recovered,” Kirby said, according to The Points Guy. “It tells you something about that pent-up desire to travel, the pent-up desire to remake those connections.”
Indeed, Kirby’s carrier announced it will start hiring pilots again and that pilots already on the payroll will be back working their normal number of hours by next month, welcome reversals from the freezes and layoffs from a year ago.