Memorial Day travel surge to test US airports, airlines

US air passenger numbers are forecast to average as many as two million a day through the Memorial Day holiday, testing the ability of airlines and airports to handle infrequent and, in some cases, unruly fliers, a media report said.

While domestic air-travel numbers last Christmas were only half those in 2019, recent Transportation Security Administration (TSA) counts have them now hovering around 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, Xinhua news agency quoted The Wall Street Journal report published on Saturday as saying.

The TSA screened 1.9 million passengers on May 23, a 14-month high.

Bookings from leisure travellers heading to the beaches and mountains picked up in March and accelerated in recent weeks, airline executives were quoted as saying at an industry conference this week, said the report.

“The surge in travel is just now starting to happen,” said Frontier Airlines’ chief executive, Barry Biffle.

“Memorial Day is going to be big; the Fourth of July is going to be crazy.”

Many holiday-weekend travellers are infrequent fliers, and now some are coming back after more than a year of staying close to home, The Wall Street Journal report noted.

American Airlines Group Inc., the world’s largest carrier, said a third of its passengers typically take only one trip a year.

The first of the year’s four big holiday-travel periods comes as the industry faces a rise in onboard incidents often driven by disputes over mask-wearing.

Tensions over masks, which are still required on public transportation through the fall, are exacerbated by the return to busier flights and airports, airline executives and union officials were quoted as saying.

Federal Aviation Administration chief Steve Dickson started a town hall last week with a warning for passengers to behave.

The agency has received more than 2,500 reports linked to disorderly-passenger conduct this year, the majority of them linked to passengers refusing to comply with the mask policy.

“We’ve never seen numbers like this before,” Dickson said.

The FAA has extended into September a zero-tolerance policy introduced in January that subjects passengers who flout safety rules to fines and possible jail time, rather than the prior system of warnings.