Some travelers over spring break may have felt as if Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was back to the way things were before the COVID-19 pandemic savaged air travel more than a year ago. At its peak, MSP was positively bustling with Minnesotans desperate to connect with a beach, a golf course or far-flung loved ones after a depressing year of lockdown.
That trend will likely continue at the airport heading into Memorial Day — the traditional start of summer — especially as more people are vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Last weekend kicked off with some 26,600 travelers passing through TSA checkpoints on Thursday, and the previous weekend was the busiest since the virus struck, according to figures released Monday by the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC).
The single-day pandemic peak was March 26, with 29,200 passengers clearing TSA checkpoints at MSP.
"The passenger activity for March was extremely encouraging, no doubt fueled by spring break travel and the growing confidence of people who feel it's safe enough to travel," said MAC spokesman Jeff Lea.
Still, peak activity at MSP over the past two weekends was down 25% to 30% compared with pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Nationally, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened more than one million passengers for 25 consecutive days beginning March 11. But that was roughly half the number of people screened every day before the pandemic.
All told, spring break travel has led to four consecutive weeks averaging 21,000 daily passengers clearing TSA checkpoints at MSP, Lea said. That's an increase from February, when the average number of passengers screened daily ranged from 15,000 to 18,600. Pre-pandemic highs typically numbered between 35,000 and 45,000 daily.
"The growing number of people who are being vaccinated is likely a contributing factor into that growing confidence to travel, or travel more frequently," Lea added.
The increase in travel at MSP and elsewhere comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance for fully vaccinated Americans last week, noting they are less likely to contract and spread the virus.
But the CDC still discourages nonessential air travel, due to a rising number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations here and abroad.
Despite the increasing number of passengers taking to the skies, "It's definitely not going to be travel as we knew it from before the pandemic," said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, principal at San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group.
"Most international travel is still off limits to Americans and we're still required to wear masks at airports, aboard flights, and many hotel chains require them," he added.
Although low airfares may tempt the pandemic-weary, Harteveldt said popular theme parks and sports venues may have capacity limits, and some museums remain closed. Moreover, prices for hotel rooms and rental car costs have increased.
"We are inching our way back to normal, we're making progress, but we're not at normal yet," Harteveldt said.
Travelers at MSP will notice that hours at most airport retail shops and restaurants remain curtailed, and none has reopened full time.
At Terminal 1, MSP's main terminal, 41 concessions remain closed, while 67 are operating part time. At Terminal 2, six outlets are open part time, and six remain closed.
This month, MAC officials said 343 average daily departures from MSP are expected — a 67% increase from the same period last year.
Airline operations in May are expected to increase by another 20 or so flights a day, "which certainly signals confidence by the airlines that they see positive signs in passenger demand at MSP," Lea said.