Middle seats are mostly filled again, so are TSA security checkpoints, and Alaska Airlines flight attendant Cassie Dole no longer has reading time on her flights in and out of the Bay Area.
“Everyone’s wearing masks, but other than that, it seems like it’s two summers ago,” Dole said. “You see people going to Disney World, families on the planes, grandparents visiting families for the first time in two years.”
It may seem like flying is back to its busy, annoying pre-pandemic peak. But literally, that’s not the half of it.
An analysis of airport traffic data shows that all three Bay Area airports are still far short of pre-COVID levels — and with cases on the rise again the rebound has run into more turbulence. The number of passengers who flew this June through Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco airports is still roughly half of that of June 2019.
Oakland International Airport is ahead of the pack with more than 700,000 passengers in June 2021, a 33% drop from the 1.2 million passengers in June 2019. San Jose International Airport had more than 700,000 passengers this June, 46% lower than the 1.4 million passengers it had in June 2019.
And with many of its international flights still not back to pre-pandemic schedules, San Francisco has been the slowest to recover: Its 2.2 million passengers in June 2021 were 59% down from the 5.5 million passengers who flew in and out of SFO in June 2019.
The Bay Area has a big chunk of international and business travelers, who are not flying as much — a major reason “why we’re not seeing our traffic at the 2019 levels,” said Erin Francis-Cummings, president and CEO of the tourism market research agency Destination Analysts.
Thanks to the huge demand for leisure travel in June and July, Francis-Cummings found that airports near vacation destinations, such as Santa Barbara or Palm Springs, are “doing very well.”
There’s another explanation why Bay Area flights in general seem more crowded: The number of flights operating at the region’s airports is also much lower right now than two years ago. Oakland has seen a 35% drop; San Jose is down 45% and SFO is down by half. In turn, flights that are operating are as full or often more full than before.
But news about the delta variant has been “disruptive to the overall travel sentiment,” according to Francis-Cummings. She was seeing a “nice upward trajectory of people saying they wanted to travel and feeling good about travel” since February – until just two weeks ago. The spike in new infections had an especially large effect on Bay Area travelers, who tend to be more cautious toward COVID-19.
“While I would love it if we have full travel and air recovery by the end of the year, that might be a little optimistic at this point,” said Francis-Cummings.
For leisure travelers, though, the old frustrations — along with some obvious COVD-related new ones — are back.
Craig Byrum flew from Seattle to San Jose late last month and took notice of the “super, super busy, super congested” terminal as he sat near a luggage conveyor belt for hours waiting for his daughter to arrive.
“It’s not any different than before,” Byrum said, except for the “suffocating” pain of wearing a mask.
While still lower than 2019, the passenger count for all three Bay Area airports has been increasing rapidly since February – more than the typical increase for the summer travel season. The Bay Area trend generally mirrors that of the U.S. After a 95% drop in April 2020, the number of passengers traveling through the TSA checkpoints nationally has been increasing quickly since February this year, hitting nearly 57 million passengers in June. That’s about 70% of the 77 million passengers who flew in June 2019.
Dole noticed a sudden uptick of passengers on her Alaska Airlines flights in the middle of April, around the time vaccines became eligible to everyone in California.
“It didn’t really feel like a slow ramping up of people,” she said. Now, she feels like flights are even busier than before the pandemic.
“There was no one really on the plane, and then now, the seats are oversold and airports are really, really full,” Dole said. “It’s been kind of tricky to get my mindset shift from not having people on the plane and just read my book in the back to now.”
Rajesh Raghunath, an essential worker who flew often during the pandemic to install coronavirus testing equipment, had mixed feelings about the return of the crowded airport. While traveling during the early days of the pandemic was a breeze, it felt “spooky” with flights so empty, he said.
Now, with flights crowded, the delays are back and he has new concerns with COVID cases taking off again.
“Things are going back to normal, so it’s a good thing,” he said. “But at the same time you feel, ‘Oh my gosh, is it too early?”
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