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Southwest Airlines passenger jets are parked on the tarmac at Midway International Airport (MDW) in Chicago on Oct. 11, 2021.
Southwest Airlines passenger jets are parked on the tarmac at Midway International Airport (MDW) in Chicago on Oct. 11, 2021. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

More than 2.4 million people moved through U.S. airport security checkpoints Sunday, the busiest day for domestic air travel since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Transportation Security Administration said Monday.

The sheer volume of people flying for the Thanksgiving holiday marked a milestone for air travel as passenger counts inch closer to pre-pandemic levels. The TSA screened 20.9 million people during the 10-day travel period that ended Sunday, which is 89% of levels recorded before the pandemic, according to TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

The increase signals robust demand for end-of-the year travel as more people are eager for more in-person celebrations away from home nearly two years into the public health crisis. The Thanksgiving travel surge was a test for airlines still struggling to rebuild operations while confronting a spike in unruly passenger behavior.

Airlines have sought in recent months to capitalize on a growing appetite for travel as the pandemic scrambled the industry and left some carriers stretched thin. American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines are among carriers that have stumbled, canceling thousands of flights and leaving customers stranded at airports this summer and fall, in part because of staffing shortages.

Sunday's busy travel day came with no major mishaps in the nation's skies, airports and security lines, even as some travelers encountered long lines at checkpoints. Stable weather contributed to the largely smooth operations.

"The Thanksgiving holiday travel period went very smoothly, to the point that it was fairly uneventful as it relates to security screening," Farbstein said. "We were very prepared for the larger volume and so were passengers."

While Sunday was the busiest air travel day since the start of the pandemic, the second-busiest was Wednesday - the day before Thanksgiving.

The spike in domestic travel comes as virus transmissions have fallen from their peak, coronavirus vaccinations are more widely available to children and many pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted. But it also precedes new travel restrictions announced over the weekend, generally affecting international travel, to slow the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant.

The new restrictions are likely to affect plans for international travel this holiday season.

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