As COVID-19 vaccinations made their way into arms across the country this spring and summer, the U.S. was in the midst of an uninterrupted recovery in travel, slowly but surely climbing back to the pre-pandemic norms. But then the fast-spreading Delta variant hit, causing another wave of COVID-19 infections across the country.
And it's providing yet another reminder that the return to normal is fragile – and it's not a straight line. After months of setting pandemic-era records and climbing above 2 million daily travelers for the first time since March 2020, travel numbers in the U.S. are falling again.
For the last 10 straight days, the number of travelers moving through U.S. airports has been lower than the week prior, according to TSA data. The seven-day average of travelers has fallen below 2 million for the first time since early July – and it keeps falling.
While travel has come a long way since the depths of the pandemic, those are a troubling sign. You can see the start of the downturn in this interactive graphic we put together comparing TSA travel data since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's not the first downturn in travel as Americans get spooked by bad news and rising case counts, and it won't be the last. It's also the end of the traditional summer travel season, as families stay home and get ready for another year of school. But airlines have started to sound the alarm, too.
This week, Southwest Airlines said that bookings have slowed down in August while cancellations have been ticking back up. Just weeks earlier, Southwest and many other major U.S. airlines said the spread of the Delta variant was not affecting their business.
Data from J.P. Morgan shows that as cases have risen, U.S. credit card spending on airfare has dropped.
JPMORGAN: “Retail spending outcomes have fallen short of our .. model in recent months. Our US card data reinforces this note of caution, showing a loss of momentum for airline spending and leveling off for restaurant spending this quarter.” $XAL pic.twitter.com/Tgt1VU0pLF
— Carl Quintanilla (@carlquintanilla) August 10, 2021
Still, millions of Americans are hitting the skies every day. The days of empty airports and empty flights are clearly over.
In May, federal health officials gave vaccinated Americans the green light to resume traveling – and they have. Countries in Europe and across the globe have reopened their borders to vaccinated travelers. But as cases climb again, Europe is cracking down with more entry requirements and restrictions on the ground.
Travel remains down by roughly 20% compared to pre-pandemic numbers – and with a slower resumption in business and international travel, it could take another year or two to get back to 100%.
Travel has come a long ways in the last few months – but the rebound in travel was never going to be a straight line. A rise in COVID-19 cases fueled by faster-spreading variants has clearly forced some travelers to rethink or cancel their travel plans this summer.