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Air travel in the U.S. hit a 5-month high over Labor Day weekend

Airports turn to touchless technology
Airports turn to touchless technology 02:54

Ignoring elected officials' pleas for people to stay home for Labor Day, more Americans flew over the holiday weekend than at any time since the coronavirus pandemic erupted in the U.S. in March.

The Transportation Security Administration screened 3.2 million passengers over the four-day weekend, according to figures released by the agency on Tuesday. Friday was the busiest day since March 16, with 970,000 passengers screened. Monday was close behind, with 935,000 passengers screened. 

Despite the increase in air travel, passenger counts remain well off year-ago levels. The number of flyers over the Labor Day weekend was less than half of the 2019 total, when some 8 million passengers were screened over a four-day period.

Travel industry professionals called the uptick in passengers "encouraging," while acknowledging that the industry has a long way to go before volumes return to pre-pandemic levels.

"We may not get back to 2019 numbers for a couple years, but definitely we are starting to see that incremental positive growth," Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, told reporters on Tuesday.

The nonprofit and 70 other travel-industry organizations launched a campaign on Tuesday encouraging Americans to book a trip in the future as a way to boost the economy. Beteta described planning a trip, even one far off in the future, as "a great modern-day act of patriotism." 

"Every hotel room booked or restaurant table reserved means people in these communities are actually getting back to work," she said.

Nationwide, about one-third of hospitality jobs has disappeared since the pandemic, according to travel industry officials. Air travel remains among the most impacted industries, along with cruise ships, as many Americans dodging the virus avoid crowds and enclosed spaces. 

Airlines warn employees of possible furloughs... 02:03

The three largest U.S. air carriers — American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines — have announced plans to lay off thousands of workers starting in October unless they receive more financial aid from the government. 

Carriers have also tried to entire more people into flying by dropping unpopular fees, including $200 charges to change a trip. And some airlines, including Delta and Southwest, have pledged to keep middle seats empty on planes as a way of allowing more room between passengers.

Car travel has been less affected by the pandemic. Passenger vehicle traffic plummeted this spring, but by the end of August had returned to about 90% of its pre-pandemic level, according to Inrix, a location intelligence company. 

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