Americans are taking to the skies in record numbers for the Fourth of July weekend, surpassing pre-pandemic TSA screenings numbers as airlines report staff shortages and the number of Delta variant cases rise.
The newest figures from the Transportation Security Administration said that on Thursday and Friday, airport screenings climbed above 2019 levels for the first time since the pandemic began.
On Thursday, 2,147,090 people were screened, surpassing the 2,088,760 travelers on the same day in 2019.
Yesterday 2,196,411 travelers were screened, more than the 2,184,253 people who travelled on July 2 in 2019.
These numbers far surpass 2020 figures, when high death and infection rates limited travel over the holiday weekend to reach a high of just 764,761 people on July 1, 2020.
The TSA said that on Thursday and Friday airport screenings climbed above 2019 levels for the first time since the pandemic began
Travelers make their way through airport security at Denver International Airport on July 2 ahead of Independence day
Travelers make their way through Salt Lake City International Airport on July 1 right before July Fourth weekend
The strong travel numbers for Independence Day weekend are mainly due to domestic U.S. leisure travel, with most business-related and long-haul international travel still on hold, CNBC.com reported.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) forecast that 3.5 million airline passengers will be on the move between July 1 and July 5.
Road trips will prove even more popular, with the AAA expecting 43.6 million to drive.
Marking the highest level ever recorded for Independence Day, Americans are seemingly undeterred by rising gas prices which topped $3 per gallon for the first time since the autumn of 2014 this week.
In total, 47.7 million people will travel by car or plane over the weekend, 40 percent more than last year and just 2.5 percent lower than the record level set in 2019.
Hopper economist Adit Damodarn told ABC News that July 4 was the most searched for weekend on its travel booking site so far in 2021.
Popular domestic holiday spots like Las Vegas, Miami and Orlando are most popular, he said, while those heading further afield are opting for the Caribbean and Mexico.
Chicago O’Hare, LAX, and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport will be the busiest while Friday and Monday will see the heaviest flow of travelers through the nation’s airports, he said.
United Airlines recorded its busiest day since the start of the pandemic on Thursday and expects to surpass this record again on July 5, reported ABC.
Overall, two million passengers are forecast to fly with the airline between Thursday and Tuesday.
Security agents scan travelers luggage at a checkpoint at Denver International Airport Friday on July 2 as travel over the holiday weekend sees a sharp uptick from 2020 and 2019
Travelers wait in line for immigration process ahead of the July 4th holiday, at the Newark Liberty International Airport
Several states, such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Nevada, are reporting an increase in cases of COVID-19 ahead of July 4 weekend
Many states where COVID-19 cases are rising have fully vaccinated less than 45% of their populations – which is below the national average
The surge in travelers has left the tourism industry struggling to cope with the sudden demand, after it was hammered by COVID-19 restrictions over the last year.
Airlines which were forced to furlough or lay off staff as air travel ground to a halt last March are now struggling to get enough crew members to fly their planes.
The TSA has said it plans to hire 6,000 new officers to cope with the surge in summer travel and is launching recruitment initiatives to drive interest.
The staff shortages across the air travel industry could mean long waits at airports for passengers eager to reunite with friends and family.
‘Airlines, airports and the TSA, I think, were all surprised by how quickly travel has rebounded,’ Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, told CBS News.
Despite travelling numbers that rival pre-pandemic days, the US is still battling the coronavirus and officials said they are currently witnessing a rise in cases of the Delta variant.
More than 30 percent of adults are still not vaccinated and officials are concerned about large numbers of vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans mixing, with Joe Biden warning that ‘lives will be lost’ because of people who didn’t get the shot.
The US is currently averaging about 12,000 new cases and 250 deaths a day now that to 66.8 percent of the nation’s adults have received at least their first dose of the vaccine.
This proportion is short of Biden’s goal of 70 percent by July 4.
There is a big variation in vaccine take-up across different parts of the country and – in turn – a growing difference in the number of new infections being reported.
The north-east states generally have the highest vaccination rates while the south and mid-west is lagging behind.
States including Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Nevada are reporting increases in infections by as much as 200 percent in the last two weeks.
All five states have among the lowest vaccination rates, fully vaccinating less than 45 percent of their populations.
Mississippi has the lowest of all vaccination rates with less than 30 percent of residents fully vaccinated, CDC data shows.
Meanwhile, health officials in Arkansas have warned of a ‘third surge’ in the virus as cases have already risen by 202 percent over the last two weeks and people plan to gather for the holiday.
Just 34.5 percent of state residents are fully vaccinated.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Thursday warned that around 1,000 counties nationwide are especially ‘vulnerable’ as they are yet to reach the 30 percent milestone.
This is enabling the Delta variant to spread rapidly, she warned, with cases of the new strain now recorded in every state.
The Biden administration has prepared for a further rise in the Delta variant in areas of low vaccination by setting up surge response teams that can spring in to action and help if an outbreak erupts.