Ontario Airport saw an 18% jump in cargo tonnage in 2020.

Ontario Airport saw an 18% jump in cargo tonnage in 2020.

Final passenger counts are in for 2020, wrapping up the worst year since World War II for the four commercial airports serving Los Angeles County.

Just 34.4 million total passengers went through the gates at Los Angeles International, Ontario, Hollywood Burbank and Long Beach airports last year as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.

That represented a plunge of exactly two-thirds — 66.7% — from 103.2 million passengers for 2019.

“There’s no doubt that 2020 was historic for the aviation industry,” Justin Erbacci, chief executive of Los Angeles World Airports, which runs LAX, said in his year-end report. “Never before have we seen such a prolonged decrease in air travel as the one we saw due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.”

Passenger traffic at LAX tumbled 67.3% last year while Hollywood Burbank Airport saw a drop of 66.6%. Long Beach traffic plunged even further, by 70.9%, while Ontario’s decline came in at 54.5%

The full-year results include two months of “normal” travel in January and February before the U.S. coronavirus shutdown hit in mid-March.

On the cargo side, however, the picture was very different. Last year turned out to be a boom for LAX and Ontario. The airports handle the lion’s share of air cargo for the Los Angeles region and saw substantial increases during the pandemic. Those gains pushed the region’s air cargo total up 9.2% in 2020 to a total of 3.46 million tons moved.

For all local airports, the initial Covid hit was brutal. Passenger traffic plunged nearly 96% in April at the four airports compared to April 2019. At LAX, 300,000 passengers went through the gates in April, the lowest monthly total since 1955. Long Beach Airport saw a mere 6,300 passengers during the month.

The next six months brought slow but steady improvement in passenger counts. But progress stalled in November, then reversed course in December as a surge in Covid cases and hospitalizations triggered a new wave of shutdowns.

December’s cumulative passenger count of 2.31 million for the region’s airports represented a drop of 5% from November and a 74% decline from December 2019, the largest year-over-year drop for a given month since September.

Summing up this rocky recovery path, Erbacci said in his year-in-review presentation, “While we have experienced some growth over the last nine months from an initial drop of 95% in passenger traffic … we continue to have a long road ahead for our recovery.”

Indeed, the four airports serving L.A. County collectively have lagged two of the nation’s other major airport systems — Chicago and Atlanta — in their recovery from the spring lockdown.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, traditionally the largest airport in the nation by passenger volume, saw its passenger count drop 61% in 2020 compared to its 2019 total. Chicago’s two airports — O’Hare International and Midway — saw their passenger counts drop about 62% through November.

International travel plunge

One major reason for the L.A. region’s lagging performance was its higher proportion of international travel, particularly at LAX. That airport saw a 75% drop in international travelers in 2020 compared to 2019. Erbacci previously told the Business Journal that the drop in international travel actually began in late January as the Covid pandemic swept through China.

Long Beach Airport faced additional turmoil last year because the airport’s dominant carrier, JetBlue Airways Corp., scaled back operations then abandoned the airport completely in early October. The New York-based airline shifted its Southern California focus to LAX after failing to get approval from the city of Long Beach for international travel.

That transition caused JetBlue to drop to No. 7 among carriers by cumulative passenger volume at the four airports in 2020 after holding down the No. 6 slot in 2019. Miramar, Fla.-based Spirit Airlines Inc. leapfrogged JetBlue into the No. 6 slot last year.  

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. picked up most of JetBlue’s flight allocations at Long Beach Airport, but the carrier is still ramping up its flights there.

Ontario International, with its 54.5% drop in passengers, wasn’t hit as hard as other airports in part because it has a much smaller proportion of international travelers.
“Even with the (Covid-related) decline, Ontario fared significantly better than most airports in California and across the world,” Mark Thorpe, chief executive of the Ontario International Airport Authority, said in the airport’s year-end passenger and cargo totals announcement.

But aviation industry consultant Mike Boyd, president of Denver-based Boyd Group International, cautioned against reading too much into Ontario’s comparatively better performance.

“Ontario just has a small base that can be easily affected by a couple of airline scheduling changes,” he noted.

Air cargo bonanza

Ontario did lead the region’s air cargo boom, with an 18% jump in cargo tonnage last year to nearly 924,000 tons.

“Ontario solidified its position as a leading air cargo hub in 2020,” Thorpe said. “Working closely with our freight partners, we not only withstood the surge in ecommerce shipments early in the year, we ramped up quickly to manage double-digit increases in commercial freight volume as Californians hunkered down at home and shopped online for vital household supplies.”

At LAX, the jump in air cargo tonnage was largely due to imports of personal protective equipment to combat the Covid crisis.

“LAX was the No. 1 U.S. port for personal protective equipment cargo operations, a trade category that increased an astonishing 20,433% at LAX,” Erbacci said.

The 2.46 million tons of air cargo that moved through LAX in 2020 represented roughly $95.5 billion in monetary value, he noted.

2021 outlook

On the passenger side, Erbacci said in remarks to the Jan. 21 meeting of the LAWA Board of Airport Commissioners that this year has not gotten off to a promising start.
“Passenger screening levels post-holiday have returned to levels we were seeing last summer,” he said. “In speaking with airlines and industry leaders, we anticipate that this will remain for the first quarter of this year.”

Erbacci said airline leaders are optimistic for the summer travel season, however. “The airlines are increasing their operations, and they are starting to see more robust bookings for the summer period,” he said. “So, we are optimistic that we might start to see some growth and recovery in the summertime.”

But Erbacci included a major caveat: “This is assuming that vaccines get distributed as planned and that we are able to get over this latest surge in cases,” he said.
As of January, the latest surge in Covid cases appeared to be subsiding though the vaccine rollout remains slower than planned.

Boyd said it will be years before passenger counts return to pre-Covid levels. “Plan on 2023-24 at the earliest,” he said. “The reality is that this is now a new air transportation system, and not just a wounded pre-2019 system. Consumer patterns have changed, and it’s now capacity decisions on the part of airlines that are the main driver of passenger levels.”

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