Air Travel Gets Memorial Day Bump to Levels Unseen in Weeks

Air travel over the Memorial Day holiday weekend returned to levels not seen since plummeting in March when stay-home orders took effect across most of the U.S.

More than 318,000 people passed through U.S. airport security checkpoints on Thursday followed by 348,673 on Friday, topping 300,000 for the first time since March 23, according to figures from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.

More than 8,500 flights took off on Thursday and on Friday, the most of any single day since April 13, as airlines added service, according to data from FlightAware.

The volumes are still a fraction of prior-year levels, underscoring the depth of the pain inflicted on the travel industry by the Covid-19 pandemic and measures imposed to slow it down. The number of people who passed through airport security checkpoints on Friday represented just 12% of passenger volumes on the Friday before Memorial Day last year.

Ahead of the three-day weekend, some airlines had been reporting early positive signs with bookings beginning to out-pace cancellations and some growth in leisure travel. Southwest Airlines Co. added 119 flights during the holiday weekend, in part to limit the number of passengers on each plane to allow for social distancing.

A Standard & Poor’s index of major U.S. carriers surged 13% at 2:40 p.m.. the most on the S&P 500 Index, amid speculation that the worst of the economic hit from the pandemic has passed. United Airlines Holdings Inc. led the rally, rising 16% to $29.44. Through last week, the company’s shares had tumbled 71% this year as the pandemic and government travel restrictions battered demand for flights.

“We’re already seeing an uptick in travelers at the airport,” Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said in a recorded weekly message for employees. “Don’t get me wrong — it’s far from enough, but load factors are at least trending in the right direction, and that is very, very welcome.”

— With assistance by Alan Levin, and Mary Schlangenstein

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