Air transport has already returned to normal in some places. Here is where.
In Florida, the Key West International Airport is busier than normal, while Miami International has half as many passengers as before the pandemic.
In the West, major city airports – in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle – serve a fraction of their typical passenger volume, between 24% and 46%. But smaller regional airports near Jackson Hole, Wyo., And the Colorado ski region, have passenger volumes up to 12% higher than around the same time last year.
This trend is typical across the country, new detailed data show. Large hub airports only have a fraction of the number of travelers they did at this time last year, even as Americans fly back on the plane, especially to vacation destinations.
“You see airports in Colorado, Montana and Key West have made a lot of recovery,” said Kevin Williams, a Yale economist who studies air travel data. “And then you have a lot of big cities that are still down a lot.”
He compiled granular data from the Transportation Security Administration that tracks the number of people passing through airport checkpoints. This shows that with millions of people vaccinated daily and with states rescinding pandemic restrictions, Americans are returning to leisure travel in large numbers.
But airports that serve major cities still serve far fewer travelers than at the start of last year. Washington National, near the District of Columbia, lost 70% of its passenger volume. San Francisco International serves a quarter of its typical volume, and New York’s Kennedy Airport is at about a third.
This may in part reflect the slower return of business travel. These hub airports also tend to have many international flights, which should take longer to recover. Additionally, many urban attractions for leisure travelers – the Broadway theaters in New York, the Smithsonian museums in Washington – remain closed due to the pandemic.
A few dozen small airports, where travel is flourishing despite the growing number of coronavirus cases nationwide, appear to fall into two categories: those particularly close to outdoor vacation destinations and those serving communities whose residents are more willing to travel during a pandemic.
“The only thing that differs is the masks,” said Richard Strickland, manager of the Key West International airport, which has flown five times in the past five months. “We are now busier than in 2019.”
Idaho Falls Regional Airport is about two hours from Yellowstone National Park, which drew many visitors last year. The airport’s passenger volume is now 80% of what it was last year – a stronger recovery than the state’s largest airport, at Boise, which accounts for about 60% of its volume regular travel.
Two other airports serving Yellowstone, one in Wyoming and the other in Montana, were back to pre-pandemic travel volume in early March.
“In late summer and fall, we were seeing roughly the same numbers as in 2019,” said Rick Cloutier, general manager of Idaho Falls airport. “We have been the happy beneficiaries of people’s desire to be outdoors.
Passenger volume returned to normal at Canyonlands Field Airport in Utah, near Arches National Park. On the Gulf Coast of Florida, airports near beaches are having an equally good year. There were 24% more passengers passing through Northwest Florida Beaches Airport in early March than around the same time last year.
However, the airports of an outdoor vacation destination remained particularly empty: Airports in Hawaii fell from 51% to 84% in passenger volume. The state, which has had relatively few cases of Covid, is requiring visitors to test negative within three days before travel or to self-quarantine for 10 days upon arrival, complicating travel. The longer time spent on a flight can also scare off potential passengers.
The willingness to travel by plane can also vary from city to city. Americans have responded differently to strategies to minimize the spread of the pandemic, by wearing masks and limiting time outside the home to different levels.
“We seem to have refueled when not everyone else is,” said Steve Gleason, executive director of Provo Municipal Airport. Its airport is small – usually around four flights a day – but very busy. It’s not particularly close to a national park.
Passenger traffic is down 2% from a year ago, while Salt Lake City International, an hour away, is still down 40%. Mr Gleason says most of the rebound relates to passengers traveling to see their families during the pandemic or to students attending Brigham Young University, which is hosting in-person classes this semester.
“Most of our trafficking is family trafficking; they just kept on stealing, ”he said. “It seems like it all came to a standstill pretty solid for a couple of months and then everyone resumed.”