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Breaking the statistical link between COVID-19 cases and air travel demand

The connection between passenger traffic growth and new infections is mathematically meaningless.

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Release Date
October 27, 2020
Breaking the statistical link between COVID-19 cases and air travel demand
  • The U.S. air transport system is backing away from the million screenings per day mark, receding steadily since its Oct. 18 peak.
  • Cases of COVID-19, now spiking, have little statistical correlation with the number of people wanting to fly.
  • Fear of the virus is waning in the U.S., which is being reflected in the overall slowly growing traffic numbers, but other key indicators closely guide the trajectory.

On Sunday, October 18 the United States celebrated the first one million passenger day since the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic. And just as that psychological mile marker was crossed, traffic started declining week-over-week — the first time since a non-holiday stretch since late July.

While the press release was being drafted and celebrations of the 1 million passenger day were prepared, passenger numbers began their retreat. More than 37,000 fewer passengers passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on Monday, October 19 than the Monday prior — a 4% contraction.Since, the weekly average has plateaued and each day has produced fewer travelers than the week prior. The famous one million passenger Sunday recorded on October 18 was followed up by a 983,000 Sunday on October 25.

Read: Furloughs, aircraft retirements put a ceiling on airline recovery

As the temperature drops and Americans spend more time indoors during a pandemic, the number of COVID-19 cases are expected to rise. And rise they have. On October 23, the U.S. recorded the highest number of new daily infections with 82,929 new cases, surpassing the prior high of 74,818 new cases set on July 24.

Yet, as new infections rise to a concerning new national record, air travel is 32% higher than it was during the prior July 24 peak. Over 958,000 passengers cleared screenings at TSA checkpoints on October 23, compared with just shy of 725,000 on July 24, with a lower number of infections.

Read: COVID can’t keep passengers away from flying forever, but the economy can

At the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. witnessed traffic plummet as new coronavirus cases rose. Since, the country has experienced a higher peak with a muted response. Now that cases are again beginning to tick up, this TAC Analysis mathematically examines different indicators to correlate how passenger traffic may respond, and what this may mean for the approaching future of U.S. air travel.

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