Passenger traffic is rebounding at LAX.

Passenger traffic is rebounding at LAX.

The rebound in travelers at local airports continued in June with passenger counts nearing two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels and cargo tonnage continuing to post record highs.

And for the first half of 2021, passenger counts at the four airports serving Los Angeles County — Los Angeles International, Ontario International, Hollywood Burbank and Long Beach — improved month by month.

Overall, 21.4 million passengers went through
the gates at all four airports from January through June, up 1.7% from the same period last year. The 2020 figures were bolstered by pre-pandemic traffic levels in January and February.

But that total was down 57% from the same period in 2019 when just over 50 million passengers went through all four airports, on the way to a second consecutive year of more than 100 million passengers.

As the largest of the four airports, LAX set the overall pace in the first half, with nearly 18 million passengers from January through June, a drop of 58.3% from the first half of 2019.

“We’ve continued to see month over month increases in passenger numbers,” said Justin Erbacci, chief executive of Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that runs LAX.

The improvement was most pronounced at Ontario International Airport, where passenger counts came within 10% of pre-pandemic levels in June.

For the first half of 2021, Ontario’s passenger totals were down only 36% from pre-pandemic levels — the only airport serving Los Angeles County that for most of the period had recouped more than half of its pandemic-induced drop in passengers.
Looking more closely at the LAX numbers in the first half, domestic travel and international travel have been on two different trajectories.

Domestic passenger counts have been rising month by month; the 4.1 million domestic passenger tally in June was only 27.3% below pre-Covid June 2019. Overall, for the first six months, 15.3 million domestic travelers passed through the gates at LAX, exactly half the pre-pandemic level of 2019.

But LAX continues to be plagued by a steep and enduring drop in international passengers. In June, 761,000 passengers went through the gates at LAX on their way to — or back from — international destinations. That was down 67.8% from June 2019. The six-month tally for the first half of 2021 showed 2.69 million passengers, a plunge of 78.5% from the first half of 2019.

International travel restrictions due to Covid have been a major factor — both restrictions placed on Americans by foreign governments and restrictions by the U.S. government on inbound travelers from global hot spots. In recent weeks, the European Union has lifted travel restrictions on Americans, but a U.S. ban on EU travelers remains in effect.

Erbacci said these restrictions are likely to continue for some time, especially as the Covid delta variant sweeps across the United States.

“We continue to advocate for a risk-based approach to reopening international travel as international passenger numbers continue to lag well behind our domestic passenger numbers,” he said.

June gains

For June, L.A. County’s four airports saw a total of 5.88 million passengers go through their gates in June, up 21% from May and up more than four-fold from June of last year.
While still down 38% from June 2019’s passenger total, the 2021 drop is the smallest yet from pre-pandemic levels.

Preliminary July figures show the rebound continuing — despite the Covid-19 resurgence — with passenger counts at about two-thirds of the same pre-pandemic month.

July is shaping up to be “our strongest month to date since early 2020, with about 2.6 million guests screened by TSA at LAX,” Erbacci said. He noted that came to an average of nearly 84,000 people a day, about two-thirds of the passenger boardings seen in July 2019.

Meanwhile, data released by Los Angeles World Airports show a slight shuffle in the market share of the various major airlines serving the airport. Thanks to 30% growth in passenger traffic using LAX, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. leapfrogged over Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines Group Inc. to become the new top carrier by passenger volume.

Chicago-based United Airlines Inc., Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co., and Seattle-based Alaska Airlines Inc. rounded out the top five carriers.

Burbank, Long Beach troubles

At Hollywood Burbank Airport, Houston-based Avelo Airlines launched service in April, providing some hope in an otherwise gloomy picture for that airport. Avelo has made Burbank its West Coast hub. The carrier launched with 11 routes to and from the airport. After some initial shuffling, Avelo is poised to enter the fall with a total of 12 routes.

Yet even with Avelo’s launch, Hollywood Burbank Airport’s passenger tally of just over 1 million passengers for the first six months of 2021 was down 61.4% from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic hit. That was the largest shortfall of the four airports serving L.A. County.

“Looking at the first half of 2021, we must recognize the recovery we are experiencing began in March,” said Frank Miller, executive director of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority that operates the airport. “The first quarter was a slow recovery, and then as we moved in the second quarter, we saw the numbers improve very quickly.”

Miller said the relatively robust leisure travel market has been the major driver behind the second quarter increases.

Meanwhile, Long Beach Airport is still reeling from the loss of its once-dominant carrier, New York-based JetBlue Airways Corp., which left the airport completely last fall and shifted those operations to LAX.

Southwest Airlines has picked up many of JetBlue’s flight slots but has only gradually been adding flights at the airport.

As the airport attempted to recover from JetBlue’s departure and the pandemic lockdown, passenger counts remained rather anemic during the first half of this year, with a total of 760,000 passengers, down 55.7% from the first half of 2019.

“After encountering one of the most unpredictable and challenging years in our aviation industry, we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” said Airport Director Cynthia Guidry. “During the first quarter of the year, our airport had a slow start. Thankfully, the rising vaccination rates have correlated with a welcomed return of summer travelers.”

Cargo boom

Cargo tonnage numbers for the region’s airports tell a different story. Tonnage continued to surge at LAX, as nearly 247,000 tons traveled across the tarmac in June, up 16.6% from June 2020 and 27.8% from pre-pandemic June 2019 levels.

For the first six months of 2021, LAX cargo tonnage jumped 28.6% to 1.46 million tons compared to the same six pre-pandemic months of 2019.

According to Erbacci, much of this increase has been directly related to the pandemic.
“Last year, LAX was a key hub for personal protective equipment, helping to get these critical items to people around the globe,” he said. “This year, LAX has become an important stop for vaccines en route to people throughout Southern California.”

The record was more mixed at the region’s other major cargo airport, Ontario. More than 73,000 tons of cargo passed through that airport in June, down 14.1% from June of last year, when cargo shipments were skyrocketing as people under lockdown placed more orders from their homes. But it was still up 16.7% from June 2019.

“The decline in commercial freight year-over-year was not unexpected given the magnitude of personal protective equipment shipments in the early months of the pandemic and as households began to rely less on ecommerce for supplies,” said Mark Thorpe, chief executive of the Ontario International Airport Authority. “We are confident that Ontario International’s modernized facilities and efficient operations will nonetheless remain highly attractive to shippers serving Southern California.”
All four airports combined reported more than 1.92 million tons of air cargo during the first half of 2021, up 25.5% from pre-pandemic levels.

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