Air Travel Is Already Back to Normal in Some Places. Here’s Where.

In Florida, Key West International Airport is busier than normal, while Miami International has half as many passengers as it did before the pandemic.

In the west, major city airports – in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle – serve a fraction of their typical travel volume between 24 and 46 percent. Smaller regional airports near Jackson Hole, Wyo. And the ski region of Colorado, however, has up to 12 percent more passengers than in the previous year.

This pattern is typical across the country, as detailed new data show. Major hub airports have only a fraction of the travelers they took around this time last year, even if Americans are flying again, especially to vacation destinations.

“You can see that the airports in Colorado, Montana, and Key West have recovered pretty well,” said Kevin Williams, a Yale economist who studies air travel data. “And then there are a lot of big cities that are still pretty depressed.”

He has compiled detailed data from the Transportation Security Administration tracking how many people are moving through checkpoints at the airport. It shows that with millions being vaccinated every day and states pulling back pandemic restrictions, Americans are returning to vacation travel in large numbers.

But airports that serve major cities are still serving far fewer travelers than they were at the beginning of last year. In Washington National, near the District of Columbia, passenger traffic has fallen by 70 percent. San Francisco International serves a quarter of its typical volume, and Kennedy Airport in New York is about a third.

This may be due in part to slower returns from business travel. These hub airports also tend to have many international flights that are likely to take longer to recover. In addition, many urban attractions for vacationers – Broadway theaters in New York City, Smithsonian museums in Washington – will remain closed because of the pandemic.

A few dozen smaller airports, where travel is thriving nationally despite growing coronavirus case numbers, appear to fall into two categories: those that are particularly close to outdoor vacation destinations, and those that serve communities that are more likely to be residents willing to travel in the midst of a pandemic.

“The only thing different is the masks,” said Richard Strickland, airport director at Key West International, who has flown five times in the past five months. “We’re busier now than in 2019.”

Idaho Falls Regional Airport is about two hours from Yellowstone National Park, which attracted many visitors last year. The airport’s passenger volume is now 80 percent of the previous year’s volume – a stronger recovery than at the largest airport in the state in Boise, which accounts for around 60 percent of its regular travel volume.

Two other airports that serve Yellowstone, one in Wyoming and one in Montana, were fully adjusted to the pre-demonic travel volume again at the beginning of March.

“We saw almost the same numbers in late summer and fall as in 2019,” said Rick Cloutier, executive director of Idaho Falls Airport. “We were happy recipients of people’s desire to get into nature.”

Passenger traffic at Utah’s Canyonlands Field Airport near Arches National Park has returned to normal. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, airports near beaches have a similarly good year. At the beginning of March, 24 percent more passengers passed through Northwest Florida Beaches Airport than at this time last year.

The airports in an outdoor vacation destination have remained remarkably empty, however: Hawaii’s airports have between 51 and 84 percent of passengers. The state, which has had relatively few cases of Covid, requires visitors to receive a negative test within three days of travel or quarantine for 10 days upon arrival, making travel there more complicated. The longer flight time can also put off potential passengers.

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, wear masks, and limit time outside the home to different levels.

“We seem full when everyone else isn’t,” said Steve Gleason, executive director of Provo Municipal Airport. Its airport is small – usually only about four flights a day – but full. It’s not particularly close to a national park.

Passenger traffic is down 2 percent year over year, while Salt Lake City International, an hour away, is still down 40 percent. Mr Gleason says most of the rebound has to do with passengers traveling to see the family through the pandemic or with students attending Brigham Young University, which is running face-to-face classes this semester.

“Most of our traffic is family traffic. They just kept flying, ”he said. “It seems like everything shut down pretty solidly for two or three months and then everyone resumed.”

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