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Friday, Oct 7, 2022

Virus Surge Crunches Airports’ Thanksgiving Numbers

The region’s airports were expecting a major boost from Thanksgiving weekend travel, with bookings at their highest level since the pandemic began and airlines planning significant increases in flights.

But the increase never materialized, thanks to the November surge in coronavirus cases that prompted many people to cancel travel plans at the last minute. 

Aircraft boardings at Los Angeles International Airport saw only a slight bump over the holiday. 

And the year-over-year percentage decline in boardings for the Thanksgiving travel period at the three regional airports — Hollywood Burbank, Long Beach and Ontario International — barely budged from October’s depressed levels.

“We didn’t get the big Thanksgiving numbers we were anticipating,” said Justin Erbacci, chief executive of Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that runs LAX.
The disappointing results come on top of another lackluster month for passenger traffic at the region’s four airports for October. 

While passenger numbers continued their slow climb back from the coronavirus-induced plunge in the spring, the percentage drop from October of last year remained consistent with year-over-year drops in previous months.

Overall, just under 2.5 million passengers went through the gates at all four airports in October, a decline of 71% from October 2019, paced by an identical percentage drop at LAX. 

Hollywood Burbank Airport reported a 75% decline in passengers in October compared to the same month in 2019, Long Beach had an 81% drop and Ontario posted a 57% dip. These declines closely matched the year-over-year falloff seen in August and September.

Thanksgiving fizzle

In mid-November, hopes were high among officials at the four airports that these year-over-year percentage drops would shrink considerably over the 10-day Thanksgiving holiday travel period, which includes the weekends before and after the actual holiday.
Thanksgiving is typically the busiest 10-day stretch in the entire year, including the peak summer travel season and the Christmas/New Year’s holiday period. 

In previous years, the Thanksgiving holiday has represented a bonanza for eateries and gift shops inside airport terminals, as well as car rentals, rideshare and taxi services. Last year, a record 3.21 million passengers went through the gates at LAX during the two-week period that included Thanksgiving.

According to a Thanksgiving travel forecast issued by Los Angeles World Airports on Nov. 18, several airlines had added flights to their schedules for the holiday period, based on bookings that they had received.

“Currently, the schedule calls for a total of about 11,000 flight operations at LAX from Nov. 18-30, an average of about 846 flights per day. For the same period last year, the total was 21,302 commercial passenger flights, with an average of 1,638 flights per day,” the forecast said.

That would have meant flight levels running about 52% of last year’s total; the number of flights is a rough proxy for the total number of passengers aboard those flights.

“The airport booking folks told us bookings were running at near half of last year’s levels,” Erbacci said.

But actual boarding data for the Thanksgiving holiday period released by the federal Transportation Security Administration on Nov. 30 revealed a much bleaker picture.
“We saw an average of 33% of the boardings that we had in 2019 for the same 10-day period,” Erbacci said.

That translated to roughly one-third fewer passengers than anticipated in the forecast.
“Unfortunately, the second coronavirus surge came, followed by travel advisories from the governor, Los Angeles Mayor (Eric) Garcetti and the Centers for Disease Control,” he said. “These were the right things to do and, as a result, many people canceled their travel plans.”

Similar situations played out at the three regional airports, with two reporting even steeper year-over-year falloffs in Thanksgiving travel.

At Hollywood-Burbank Airport, 14,791 passengers went through TSA checkpoints on their way to boarding aircraft during Thanksgiving week (Nov. 22 through Nov. 28), a drop of roughly 78% from the same week last year. (The TSA data is only for boardings and does not include arriving passengers.)

Long Beach Airport reported a similar plunge. The TSA screening count at the airport for the week of Nov. 22-28 was 6,464 passengers, a drop of 82% from the same week last year.

The drop was not as steep at Ontario, where the nine-day total of 34,079 boardings was down 59% from the same period in 2019. That drop is actually in line with recent passenger counts at Ontario: For October, that airport reported the number of passengers was down 57% from the same month in 2019.

Cargo surge continues

Air cargo remains the main bright spot at local airports amid all the bleak passenger travel numbers. 

Ontario airport led the way, with air cargo up 21% in October to 82,363 tons compared with October of last year. For the first 10 months of 2020, air cargo at Ontario was up 20% to just under 750,000 tons.

LAX was close behind on a percentage basis, with an October gain of 16.8% to 236,237 tons from October 2019. Year to date, LAX reported a 4.1% gain to just under 2 million tons.

Burbank, which traditionally carries a minuscule amount of air cargo compared to the other two airports, reported a gain of 2.9% to 4,712 tons in October compared to last October. For the first 10 months of 2020, air cargo tonnage was up 5.5% to 46,507 tons.

Only Long Beach Airport reported a decline in air cargo, with 1,266 tons of cargo moving through the airport in October, a drop of 32% from October 2019. For the first 10 months of 2020, air cargo tonnage fell 26% compared to 2019. In May, FedEx Corp. stopped flying planes out of the municipal airport, leaving United Parcel Service Inc. as the sole cargo air carrier.

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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