1 day, 3 million U.S. fliers: Holiday record is broken, with more jam-packed travel ahead

Los Angeles, California November 21, 2023-Holiday travelers make their way at Terminal 7 at LAX in time for the Thanksgiving weekend Tuesday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Holiday travelers make their way at Terminal 7 at LAX in time for the Thanksgiving weekend Tuesday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Nearly 3 million people boarded flights in the U.S. on Sunday as American air travel continued to surge at a record pace, surpassing pre-pandemic numbers, according to Transportation Security Administration statistics.

TSA screened 2,907,378 people traveling through U.S. airports, the highest single-day number ever. Air travel has taken three years to surpass the heights reached in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Wherever we land [on a final number], we're fully back to the year-over-year increase we were seeing before the pandemic,” a TSA official said.

During the 2019 Thanksgiving weekend, nearly 2.9 million passengers flew in a single day. Even before Sunday, that record was broken this year, with the previous busiest day occurring on June 30, the Friday before the Fourth of July holiday.

Since TSA’s inception in 2001, passenger volume consistently increased by more than 4% yearly until January 2020, when travel numbers plummeted due to the pandemic. Officials said the numbers had modestly increased over the last three years.

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During the early months of the pandemic, airline travel nearly ground to a halt, forcing carriers to lay off or furlough thousands of workers. As of September, the U.S. airline industry employs nearly 808,000 full- and part-time workers, surpassing pre-pandemic levels by 8.7%, according to federal data.

Airlines for America, a trade group for all major U.S. air carriers, said airlines have worked for months to ensure they would be prepared for the high volume of travel for this year's holiday season. Airlines have continued aggressively hiring, adjusting schedules and improving communication with passengers to combat the increased demand for air travel, according to the group.

John Heimlich, an economist for Airline for America, said the group predicted early in the pandemic that it would take until 2023 before the industry returned to pre-pandemic volumes. He said the industry is on track to surpass the 2019 number and anticipates further growth in 2024, albeit at a slower rate.

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Los Angeles International Airport also saw its busiest Thanksgiving holiday travel period since 2019, as it welcomed 2.46 million travelers over the last week and a half. Officials said several days saw more than 220,000 passengers move through the terminals.

Of the 51,332 scheduled flights across the country Sunday, fewer than 0.5% were canceled, according to flight tracker Flight Radar 24.

AAA predicted that 4.7 million people would fly over the Thanksgiving holiday period, the highest number of Thanksgiving air travelers since 2005 — a 6.6% increase compared with 2022.

"I'm optimistic that what we saw over Thanksgiving is emblematic of the kind of demand we'll see this winter," Heimlich said. The demand "is going to be very strong."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.