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TSA sees highest number of airport passengers screened since pandemic started

Travelers wait to check in for a flight at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 22. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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The highest number of airline travelers since the start of the coronavirus pandemic were screened this weekend, according to airport security officials.

The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 1.28 million people Sunday at airport security checkpoints across the country.

TSA officials also said the figure marks the sixth time in 10 days that daily volume has topped 1 million.

Holidays are normally a busy time for airports, and the TSA said this year was no different, just that volumes were down 55 to 65 percent from pre-covid times.

“Yesterday was the highest number of passenger volume since the pandemic started,” Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokeswoman, said Monday. “People are traveling for the holidays, and it’s expected to be high Monday with a lot of people traveling home.”

The low point of travel during the pandemic, which is stretching into its ninth month, was April 14, when 87,500 people flew nationwide. By comparison, Farbstein said, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport or the Los Angeles International Airport would each have about 100,000 people a day flying through before the pandemic.

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One challenge for the TSA is trying to figure out staffing levels to meet the number of travelers. Many travelers are canceling their plans at the last minute because airlines are offering them a chance to rebook with no fees.

“People are also booking at the last minute to see how low fares will go,” Farbstein said. And they are also waiting to see what “another state is requiring in terms of quarantining” before they make plans to travel.

Once people get to their destinations, she said, officials are noticing that they are staying longer.

“People are leaving early or staying longer because many are able to telework,” Farbstein said. “They realize if they made the effort to get there, maybe they should just stay there later.”

As of Monday, TSA said, 743 of its employees had “active” cases of the coronavirus. Many of the infections were contracted not when the employee was at work but when they were at home, according to Farbstein.

“We’re seeing a spike in cases where we’re seeing a spike in the community,” she said. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard that people who are getting covid are getting it while they’re not at work.”

Farbstein said the TSA is stressing to its employees that they should follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and take the same precautions at work as they do at home — wash hands, wear a mask, avoid crowds and maintain social distance.

Larger airports, including in Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, New York, Atlanta and Orlando, have had high numbers of employees with the virus, TSA officials said.

Farbstein said the TSA has “taken lots of steps to reduce touch points,” including putting in systems that allow more contactless check-ins and using 3-D technology to verify items — without doing bag searches — when security alarms are triggered at checkpoints.