Pack your patience: U.S. domestic air travel hitting pre-pandemic levels

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, and this year’s summer travel season is expected to be a busy one.

People had a lot of travel plans they had to put on hold last summer, but now with restrictions loosening across the country – and more people getting vaccinated – travel is picking up. Even on Monday morning at the Tampa International Airport, the gates were busy and large groups of travelers were seen heading to the shuttles. 

Airline executives say domestic leisure travel is at pre-pandemic levels, and the number of people passing through U.S. airports daily is likely to top 2 million before the week is over — the first time that has happened since early March 2020. Last year, Memorial Day Weekend fell between May 22 and May 25. In that timeframe, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 1.1 million passengers. This holiday weekend, the TSA has screened more passengers than that so far on a daily basis. 

On Friday, 1.9 million passengers were screened, the most this year and the most since March 8, 2020, when the virus was just beginning to spread across the country. And on Saturday, TSA screened another 1.6 million travelers.

That’s exactly what TPA is expecting. They’re projecting this Memorial Day weekend as a whole will be the most travelers they’ve seen since early last year. Over the past few days, they’ve been busy. On Monday, they expect to see their daily average hit about 65,000 passengers. To put that into perspective, at its lowest point in April 2020, they only saw about 1,500 passengers per day.

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Even without the busy holiday weekend, TPA officials said they’re still welcoming about 58,000 passengers through their doors per day. Most of the shops and restaurants that closed at the airport during the pandemic are back up and running. 

Airport officials said to expect longer wait times and are asking passengers to be prepared. TPA is still down a few hundred employees and said they are doing their best to stagger flight times, but they’re still asking travelers to be patient as they too are having to readjust to the bigger crowds they haven’t seen in over a year.

TSA is also feeling that employee shortage too. They’re planning to hire about 6,000 more officers by Labor Day to help keep up with the summer rush and help get airports like TPA back to business as usual.

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On Sunday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged travelers to respect flight attendants and other crew members who enforce federal mask mandates on planes.

"The flight crews and other workers you encounter, they’re doing their job," he said. "They’re following regulations and they’re there to keep you safe. It is absolutely unacceptable to ever mistreat a transportation worker.

"And of course, there’s very serious fines and enforcement around that," Buttigieg added.

Buttigieg said the federal mask mandate, which remains in effect on planes, buses, and trains until Sept. 13, continues to be driven by public health considerations. He stressed that travelers should abide by it as both a matter of safety and respect to transportation workers.

"Part of it has to do with the unique conditions of the physical space," Buttigieg said, explaining the extra COVID-19 precautions for crowded spaces. "Part of it has to do with the conditions of it being a workplace, and folks who really don’t have a choice about being there, the way it is in some other cases."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say that fully vaccinated people can go without face coverings inside and outside various public areas.

"These rules and regulations and these bodies of guidance always evolve with the science," Buttigieg said.

His admonition comes after the Federal Aviation Administration announced last week it was proposing civil penalties as high as $15,000 against five passengers for violations that included allegedly assaulting and yelling at flight attendants.

The Associated Press contributed to this report