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Air Travel Hit a New Pandemic High Over New Year's Weekend. Now Comes the Hard Part

Leslie Josephs | CNBC
  • Health officials have warned against travel as Covid-19 infections hit new records.
  • Airlines executives have warned they expect demand to wane after the holidays.
  • Airline shares fell sharply on the first trading day of 2021.

U.S. travel hit a new pandemic high, surging from holiday demand despite new Covid-19 infection records.

More than 1.3 million people passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at U.S. airports on Sunday, 55% of the 2.4 million people TSA screened a year earlier but still the highest volume since March 15.

Air travel spiked around the Christmas and New Year's holidays despite warnings from health officials to avoid travel to help curb the spread of Covid-19. December was the deadliest month in the U.S. for the virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a White House advisor and one of the country's leading infectious disease specialists, has warned about a further increase in infections following the holidays.

Air travel is still around half of last year's levels, and airline executives have warned they expect demand to wane outside of peak holiday periods. TSA on Monday said it screened 324 million passengers in 2020, 500 million fewer than in 2019.

Vaccines have fueled some optimism about a recovery, but the timing of when travelers will return en masse is unclear.

"As difficult as 2020 was, in many ways I expect the next 12 months to be even more challenging," Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told employees on New Year's Day. "Just as we've never experienced a global pandemic in our history, we've also never had to create and execute a plan for recovery from one. We will be building a new Delta centered on a medical and economic recovery that hasn't yet taken shape."

Airline shares started the year sharply lower. Alaska and Spirit each fell more than 5% on Monday, while shares of Delta, Southwest and United ended the day down more than 3% apiece. American Airlines shed more than 4%. The S&P 500 lost 1.5%.

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