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The holidays brought air travel to its highest levels since March. It's still way down.

More than 1.2 million passengers crossed TSA checkpoints Sunday, the most since spring.
Image: Travel Increases Ahead Of Christmas Holiday
Travelers wait for rides outside the arrivals area of Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Dec. 22, 2020. Close to one million travelers crossed TSA checkpoints that day, part of the December holiday surge.Mario Tama / Getty Images

Air travel has risen in recent weeks to levels last seen before the pandemic, as the holiday season spurred people to brave airports and airplanes to be with families in defiance of government recommendations during a worsening pandemic.

More than 3.5 million people traveled through security checkpoints from Saturday to Monday, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration. That's the most in a three-day period since mid-March. And almost 1.3 million people traveled on Sunday alone, the highest single-day figure since the pandemic took hold in the U.S.

But industry watchers say the figures do not mean Americans are comfortable flying again. Instead, the numbers represent a depressed version of the usual holiday travel surge that will vanish as the industry heads into its usual early-year swoon.

"There's an obvious seasonal interest in travel that has manifested this year, but at a much lower volume," Robert Mann, airline industry analyst and consultant at R.W. Mann & Company said. "The unfortunate factor is that once we get past January 6th, we'll go back to 600,000 passengers a day."

Air travel collapsed in March as fears of Covid-19 and stay-at-home orders led passengers to avoid airports and companies to curb business travel. On one day in mid-April, fewer than 90,000 passengers went to airports, TSA data show.

The numbers from November and December may seem larger in comparison, especially as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged Americans to avoid traveling for the holidays. But Sunday's total was about half the number of travelers from the comparable weekend in 2019.

The TSA said it was prepared for the holiday rush, requiring employees to wear face shields, installing acrylic barriers and putting more officers on duty to decrease wait times.

"TSA has been working for 10 months to ensure the checkpoint screening experience is as healthy and secure as possible for the workforce and those airline passengers who choose to travel during the pandemic," agency spokesperson R. Carter Langston said.

But until vaccinations are so widespread that customers feel safe traveling again, experts say, mutated virus strains and the rising number of cases mean the industry is likely to remain under pressure.

"It's one step forward and two steps back," Mann said.