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Monday, Aug 15, 2022

Airports See Surge in Passenger, Cargo Traffic

Passenger traffic at local airports surged in March, hitting the highest level since the pandemic began while air cargo continued to soar with tonnage at or near record highs.

The four airports serving Los Angeles County — Los Angeles International, Ontario International, Hollywood Burbank and Long Beach — had 3.1 million passengers go through their gates in March, up 65% from February.

But that’s still down 63% from the 8.5 million passengers that went through the four airports in March 2019, a year before the pandemic hit, showing how far there is to go before air travel returns to pre-Covid levels.

It was also down 17% from the number of passengers in March of last year, when the pandemic brought air travel to a near total halt by the third week of the month.

On the air cargo side, though, tonnage has not only recovered from
 the pandemic hit, but has topped pre-Covid levels to reach record territory.

The four airports handled nearly 349,000 tons of cargo in March, up 32% from March 2020 and up 24% from March 2019.

At LAX, the story continues to be the divergent performance of domestic and international travel. Domestic passenger traffic was down 5.6% to 2.27 million in March compared to the same month last year. Compared with March 2019, it was down 57.4%

International traffic was down 60.9% in March to 346,500, compared with March 2020. Compared to March 2019, international passenger counts plunged 83.1%

“We are still at less than 50% in passenger traffic versus the same time in 2019, and international travel continues to significantly lag behind domestic gains,” LAWA Chief Executive Justin Erbacci said.

But Erbacci pointed to further gains in passenger traffic in April.

According to boarding data from the Transportation Security Administration, total aircraft boardings averaged about 50,000 daily between April 1 and April 25, down about 55% from April 2019.

(The TSA does not track arriving passengers, so average daily passenger volume at LAX for the first 25 days of April was roughly twice that 50,000 level.)

“The spring travel season has brought with it a slow but steady increase in passenger traffic at LAX, with nine of the 10 busiest days of the past year so far recorded over the past three weeks,” Erbacci said. “And the airlines continue to add capacity into the summer.”

Turning to the other local airports, Ontario has fared the best on the passenger front during the pandemic, and March was no exception. Ontario was the only local airport to post a gain in passengers between March of last year and March of this year, up 11% to nearly 260,000.

Passenger counts at the airport were off about 40% from March 2019, making Ontario the only airport to have recovered more than halfway back to pre-pandemic levels.

“It is not surprising that passenger volume was higher in March this year than March last year, but in looking back to March 2019, the pre-pandemic year, we get a better measure of our recovery and see encouraging signs with more than half of our traveler volume back,” Mark Thorpe, chief executive of the Ontario International Airport Authority, said in the announcement of March airport statistics.

Similar to the situation at LAX, Thorpe said the picture was looking even brighter into the summer.

“Given the new and restarted services in recent months by airlines operating at Ontario and plans announced for the initiation of more flights coming by summer, we are confident that recovery is on the horizon, especially as more travelers receive vaccines and resume more normal travel routines,” he said.

Hollywood Burbank Airport, on the other hand, has not fared so well. Passenger traffic fell 33.6% in March to 137,000 from March of last year, and the comparison to the pre-pandemic month of March 2019 was even worse, down 70%.

Burbank has suffered the fate of many secondary airports during the pandemic, where airlines have been cutting back and consolidating to major metro area airports.

Long Beach Airport has also been hit hard by airline consolidation. JetBlue Airways Corp., which just a few years ago was that airport’s dominant carrier, used the lower passenger levels of the pandemic to speed up its abandonment of the airport after losing a bid to launch international service.

The March total of 114,000 passengers at Long Beach Airport was down nearly 15% from March 2020 and more than 60% from March 2019.

But there was a glimmer of hope in that airport’s March figures, which posted the largest gain from February — up 123% — of any of the four airports.

The local air cargo boom, meanwhile, continued in March, with LAX posting the largest gain of 41.6% to 264,000 tons compared to March 2020. Compared to March 2019, the LAX cargo tonnage figure was up 27%.

LAX continues to be a major import hub for personal protective equipment, which surged more than 12-fold last year compared with 2019.

Cargo has similarly boomed at Ontario International Airport though the cargo surge was a little less in March than in previous months.

Roughly 78,000 tons of cargo went through Ontario in March, up 9% from March 2020 and up 30% from March 2019.

Howard Fine
Howard Fine
Howard Fine is a 23-year veteran of the Los Angeles Business Journal. He covers stories pertaining to healthcare, biomedicine, energy, engineering, construction, and infrastructure. He has won several awards, including Best Body of Work for a single reporter from the Alliance of Area Business Publishers and Distinguished Journalist of the Year from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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