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Airports are getting busier and busier with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) data showing a steady rise in screening numbers to a coronavirus pandemic high of 1.85 million people on Sunday.
And by all forecasts, more travelers will stream through U.S. airports during what could be a busy summer travel season. That has airline, airport and TSA officials all bracing for any potential snags in the flying experience as many people return to the skies for the first time since March 2020.
“A lot of people got accustomed to showing up shortly before their flight before the pandemic,” TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said at an event to demonstrate the agency’s preparedness at Baltimore/Washington International Airport on Tuesday. “That’s not going to work anymore.”
From the expected larger crowds — Farbstein did not expect screening numbers to reach 2019 levels this summer — and new Covid-19 safety precautions, security could take longer this summer. New precautions include plexiglass dividers between travelers and TSA officers who check IDs, and more frequent cleanings of equipment and bins.
On the key issue of staffing, Farbstein reiterated previous comments that the TSA is “fully staffed” for current demand. The agency plans to hire 6,000 new agents by the end of September, a goal it will be halfway to by the beginning of June.
No matter the preparations, most — including the TSA — are still warning travelers to be ready. Longer than normal waits and crowds are expected when flying this summer. Airlines have added back most of their pre-pandemic flights but their own staffing numbers are down, and many airport vendors remain shuttered.
“I expect there’ll be some strain in different places,” United CEO Scott Kirby said on travel this summer at a Bloomberg Live event on Monday. He added confidently that the strain will not be at United, which is “ready” for the surge in vacationers.
But even United is not back to its full pre-Covid operation. Roughly half of its United Club lounges remain shuttered despite plans to have 21 open by the end of June. And some wonder whether airlines — United included — can maintain the enhanced aircraft cleaning programs that they implemented during the crisis and still run an on-time operation.
Brad DiFiore, a managing director at air service advisors Ailevon Pacific and someone who has flown regularly in recent months, said the main issue he sees in airports is staffing.
“It’s just not enough bodies,” he said before heading out for a flight from Atlanta to Savannah.
While analysts have talked about a national labor shortage in the U.S., the reality is more nuanced — especially at airports. Many jobs pay at or near minimum wage but with the added nuisance of long commutes and layers of extra vetting and security clearances. Some think this added hassle has many former airport employees reconsidering airport jobs for ones closer to home that offer comparable pay.
At Baltimore/Washington, the Washington, D.C., region’s busiest airport both today and before the crisis, 85 percent of concessions will be open by the end of May, airport executive director Ricky Smith said at the event. All concessions will open later this summer, he added without providing a firm date.
The number of people who pass through security at Baltimore has rebounded to about 65 percent of 2019 levels, said Smith. However, this does not include all of the passengers who connect at the airport and never clear security. Baltimore is one of Southwest Airlines’ largest bases.
“We are far from the days of low traffic,” he said. Adding that while numbers are up at BWI, he does not expect them to return to 2019 levels until at least next year.
Asked what his greatest concern was for summer travel, Smith said it is the leisure travel-first recovery. Many of these flyers are less familiar with security procedures and protocols, potentially creating confusion and slowing queues at chokepoints like TSA.
The industry is out of time if it needs to do anything else before the summer travel surge begins. The symbolic start to the season in the U.S., Memorial Day weekend, is less than two weeks away — just a blink of an eye when it comes to airline and airport planning.