The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

TSA screens 2 million people for first time since coronavirus lockdowns began

Early in the pandemic, passenger numbers fell by as much as 95 percent from normal levels

Transportation Security Administration officers wear protective masks at a security screening area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in SeaTac, Wash. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

The Transportation Security Administration screened 2 million people Friday, the first time that threshold has been crossed since March 2020 when lockdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus were put in place.

The symbolic achievement underscores how air travel is rebounding as Americans have been vaccinated against the virus. Early in the pandemic, air travel collapsed almost completely, with passenger numbers down 95 percent on some days.

Darby LaJoye, who is filling in as the TSA’s administrator, said the numbers underscore the country’s resilience.

“TSA stands ready to provide a safe and secure screening process as part of the overall travel experience,” LaJoye said in a statement.

The agency has been racing to hire new officers as travel rebounds, offering cash incentives and asking office staff to help out at checkpoints. Some airports have already seen long lines and the TSA is advising passengers to give themselves plenty of time to get through security.

TSA asks office staff for help, offers bonuses and mandates overtime to keep airport checkpoints moving

Many of TSA’s 50,000 officers continued to work during the pandemic, and 8,119 tested positive for the virus. Sixteen officers have died of covid-19, along with a screening contractor.

The recovery in travel still has some way to go. Before the pandemic began, 2.5 million people a day would regularly pass through TSA’s gates, and Friday’s figures represent just three quarters of the volume on the same day in 2019.

As the virus took hold, the impact was swift. The last time screening numbers topped 2 million was in the early days of March 2020. On April 13, 2020, just 87,534 passed through the checkpoints.

With demand for flights drying up, the airline industry stared down mass layoffs with tens of thousands of jobs on the line. Congress stepped in to protect workers, pumping billions of dollars of aid into the major airlines, while banning layoffs.

Those protections are due to end in September. On Friday, United Airlines said it did not expect to conduct any furloughs when they do, a step a major flight attendants’ union said demonstrated that the government aid had worked.

“This program should serve as a model for the future,” said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “Now that we’re on our way out of the worst crisis in aviation history, we look forward to building a just recovery that respects the contributions of all the workers who keep us flying high.”

For the airline industry, the focus is increasingly turning to easing international travel restrictions, especially between the United States and major markets like Canada and the United Kingdom. The Biden administration is forming expert groups to evaluate when it will be safe to lift some restrictions on visitors coming to the United States from overseas.