Air travel has its busiest days in months heading into Memorial Day weekend

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Americans took a small and cautious step to return to the skies this weekend, the start of the traditional summer travel season.

The TSA reported Saturday that it screened more passengers at US airports on Thursday and Friday than at any time in the last two months. It’s only a modest improvement, but it’s crucial for the turnaround chances for the battered US travel industry.

The number of travelers passing through airport screening hit 318,449 Thursday and 348,673 Friday, compared to more than 2.6 million passengers on each of the same days a year ago.

It was first time since March 23 that the TSA screened more than 300,000 people, and the first time since March 25 that the percentage of those screenings exceeded 10% of year-earlier figures. The lowest point occurred April 14 when fewer than 88,000 passing through screening, only 4% of the year-earlier level.

Even with the modest gains of recent days, the percentage of people screened since the start of April amounts to only 6% of those screened a year ago.

The plunge in air travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the recommendation that Americans avoid all non-essential travel for much of the spring has caused a financial disaster for numerous companies.

Rental car company Hertz, which gets two-thirds of its revenue from airport rentals, filed for bankruptcy Friday night. The nation’s airlines reported more than $2 billion in losses in the first quarter, and forecasts for the current period are projected to be far worse.

Still, with all states allowing at least some businesses to reopen in recent weeks, there are signs that Americans are making plans to travel again.

Delta, United and Southwest airlines reported this week that they have seen signs of improvements in bookings, and all have started to bring some flights back to their July schedules, compared to the deep cuts of 80% to 90% in May and June.

For the first time in 20 years, AAA did not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast, saying it could not trust the accuracy of the economic data it uses because of the coronavirus crisis.

But AAA said its own online bookings have been rising since April, albeit modestly, suggesting travelers’ confidence may be improving.

“The saying goes that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Americans are taking that first step toward their next journey from the comfort of their home by researching vacation opportunities and talking with travel agents,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “We are seeing that Americans are showing a preference and inspiration to explore all that our country has to offer as soon as it is safe to travel.”

When passengers finally do fly they will find a much different environment on the planes than before the crisis.

Crew members will be wearing masks and other protective gear, and airlines have requested that passengers also wear masks. There could soon be temperature checks of passengers, too, as a fever is a symptom of Covid-19. Frontier Airlines has announced its own plans to check the temperatures of its passengers, while other airlines are waiting for the TSA to announce its own procedure.

Some carriers, including Delta and Southwest, say they are booking a limited percentage of their seats on each flight, keeping the center seat empty to allow for social distancing. Others, such as United, allow passengers to rebook their flights if a plane is more full than they feel comfortable flying.

Even with a majority of planes grounded and deep cuts the schedules of all airlines, the limited number of passengers this weekend indicates that there is plenty of space on most flights.

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