Orlando International Airport leaders are celebrating some of the busiest days for travelers since the plunge in activity this spring because of the pandemic.
Airport director Phil Brown said the activity levels indicate the beginning of a multiyear recovery and “reflects a pent-up demand for travel” that he hopes will carry through to the holidays.
Airport leaders rely on the Transportation Security Administration’s screening figures as the most current indication of activity. More than 36,000 passengers were checked by TSA officers on Sunday, which, by that category, placed Orlando’s airport as the busiest in Florida and fifth-busiest in the nation, according to airport officials.
It was also the nation’s busiest day, topping a combined 1 million passengers screened by the Transportation Security Administration, which hadn’t dealt with such a volume since March.
But on the same Sunday last year, TSA officers counted 2.6 million passengers. Overall, the nation’s climb to 1 million passengers screened in a day has been gradual since a low of fewer than 88,000 passengers on April 14.
A sign of the uptick in air travel: Southwest Airlines on Thursday announced it would no longer keep middle seats open, beginning Dec. 1.
“It was easy for airlines to block middle seats early in the pandemic when there was very little customer demand for flights,” said Scott Keyes, chief executive officer of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a website service that notifies subscribers of low fares.
“But with demand slowly creeping back up for months, it’s becoming costly for airlines to continue blocking middle seats. At some point Southwest had to rip the band-aid off, and I would expect Delta, Alaska, and jetBlue to follow suit soon,” Keyes said.
Southwest Airlines said its decision to no longer block off middle is based on studies “that point to aircraft cabins as an environment where transmission of the virus is statistically improbable for two primary reasons: the uniform usage of masks; and sophisticated air systems that introduce fresh air throughout a flight.”
Among airlines, Southwest Airlines maintains a sizable lead in average daily departures from Orlando International Airport, with 70 nonstop flights to 28 cities. That’s a third fewer than a year ago.
American, Spirit, Frontier, Delta and JetBlue have similar numbers of daily flights in the mid-20s range. JetBlue operated nearly 40 flights daily last year. United is lagging behind with 17 average daily departures.
“We do see some increases in demand, as well as continued increases in customer confidence,” said Delta spokesman Drake Castañeda. “Delta continues to evaluate its schedule and is adjusting as needed based on customer demand, government travel directives and CDC guidelines.”
With tepid activity levels compared with the the start of 2020, both Orlando’s airport and airlines nationally are planning to shed more jobs, scale back costs and leave planes parked.
Orlando International Airport has not been cleared yet for flights to and from much of Europe. Service on U.S. and foreign carriers continues to Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Panama.
While conditions aren’t as