With passenger counts rising every month, local airports are anticipating the most robust summer travel season in the Covid era, with traffic either surpassing pre-pandemic levels or coming very close.
Nearly 7.2 million passengers went through the gates in May at the four airports serving Los Angeles County: Los Angeles International, Ontario, Hollywood-Burbank and Long Beach. That’s up 7% from April and 47% from May 2021.
Local airport executives expect this trend to continue through the summer travel season.
“We are immensely pleased with the pace of Ontario International’s performance as we move into the heart of the summer travel season,” Atif Elkadi, chief executive of the Ontario International Airport Authority, said in the airport’s release of May passenger and cargo data.
Ontario International is one of two local airports – the other being Hollywood Burbank – to have already surpassed pre-pandemic passenger tallies. Ontario’s May total of 519,000 passengers was 9% above May 2019 and the highest monthly count since 2016. Burbank’s tally of 531,000 passengers was 6% above May 2019.
Even at LAX, which has continued to lag the other airports in returning to pre-Covid passenger levels, executives are bullish on the vacation travel season.
“The summer is bringing a true resurgence in air travel, with our busiest days since early 2020 all taking place in June or July,” said Justin Erbacci, chief executive of Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that runs LAX.
“Even as the airlines right-size their operations and face significant logistical challenges, we still are very optimistic that the summer season will get us as close to 2019 passenger numbers as we have been in more than two years,” he added.
LAX closing the gap
Thanks to its heavier reliance on international travel, which only recently began to rebound from pandemic restrictions, the region’s biggest airport, LAX, is still mired in a slump.
LAX had 5.8 million passengers in May. While that was up 7% from April and 44% from May of last year, it was still 23% below pre-pandemic May 2019.
Yet even here, the trend line is pointing up. LAX’s May shortfall of 23% compared with pre-pandemic May 2019 was smaller than the comparable figures for April, which showed a drop of 25%. That in turn was smaller than the 29% shortfall for March compared to March 2019.
LAX has come a long way from its pandemic nadir. In May 2020, 575,000 passengers went through the gates at LAX, a drop of 92% from 2019. International travel was almost completely wiped out, falling 97% to 65,000. Since then, overall LAX passenger counts have risen more than 900%, with international passenger traffic posting a huge jump of more than 2,000%.
International travel continued to post the biggest gain at LAX in May, rising 131% from May 2021 to nearly 1.4 million.
Preliminary figures for June, however, indicate a slight pause in the return to pre-pandemic passenger counts at LAX. According to figures from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, roughly 2.8 million passengers went through TSA checkpoints at LAX on their way to board aircraft, representing a 27% drop compared to June 2019.
The passenger boarding figures do not include arriving passengers or passengers that don’t have to go through security checkpoints as they connect to other flights.
While overall passenger traffic has been rising at all four airports, the gains have not been spread evenly among the airlines, especially at LAX and Long Beach.
At LAX, there has been a substantial shakeup in airline market share since the pandemic began. Back in 2019, Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines Inc. was the largest carrier at LAX by passenger volume that year, with a market share of more than 19%. Atlanta, Georgia-based carrier Delta Air Lines Inc. was next at 17%, according to LAX statistics. The two airlines switched rankings for the first five months of 2022, with Delta the new No. 1 at nearly 21% and American at 18%.
Further down the top 10 carriers, Miramar, Florida-based Spirit Airlines Inc. and New York-based JetBlue Airways Corp. also traded places during those three years, with JetBlue leapfrogging ahead of Spirit to the No. 6 spot with a 4.6% market share (compared to Spirit’s 4.3% market share) as it relocated much of its Long Beach operations to LAX. And Mexico City-based Volaris Airlines vaulted into the top 10.
At Long Beach, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. has become firmly entrenched as the dominant carrier. According to airport statistics, 512,000 passengers boarded Southwest planes to fly out of Long Beach during the first five months of this year, roughly 84% of all passengers departing from that airport. That contrasts with the first five months of 2019, when JetBlue had a 57% market share, with 401,000 passengers. In 2019, JetBlue was already scaling back operations on its way to exiting Long Beach Airport after losing its bid to run international flights from that airport.
Long Beach is poised to add another carrier to its slim roster: in early June the airport announced that Breeze Airways, a unit of Cottonwood Heights, Utah,-based Breeze Aviation Group Inc., is taking over one of the limited flight slots relinquished by Delta. Breeze is set to start service at Long Beach in the fall, returning the count of airlines using Long Beach to five.
Air cargo tonnage at the four airports serving Los Angeles County continued to drop in May, with the 312,000 metric tons registered in April down nearly 7% from May of last year.
LAX reported a drop of nearly 7.6% to 240,000 metric tons, while Ontario posted a 3% drop to 67,000 metric tons. These two airports handle 98% of the total air cargo moving through the four airports serving Los Angeles County.
The drop in air cargo is the result of continuing supply chain issues and less consumer demand as consumers are spending a bigger portion of their income and savings on dining and entertainment. Yet cargo levels are still up 14% from the pre-Covid era.
During the early phases of the pandemic, Ontario benefitted the most as consumers switched to ordering goods online instead of spending them on local entertainment and dining venues. The airport is in the midst of the nation’s warehouse capital in the Inland Empire.
LAX benefitted the most last year thanks to surges in shipments of pandemic-related goods, including masks and vaccines. But in recent months, that surge has tapered off as the Covid pandemic has begun to ease. That has been partially offset by emergency shipments of baby formula from Australia and elsewhere to address the acute shortage in the U.S.
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