The number of airline passengers nationwide trended up throughout 2021 and aviation experts say industry data points to continued recovery in the new year.
Blue Sky News pulled four data sets to take a closer look at the industry—and Pittsburgh International Airport—including nationwide passengers, total available seats, and percentage increases by airlines in terms of passenger traffic.
“I believe 2022 will be a good year for the air transport industry after the devastating years after the outbreak of COVID-19,” said Bijan Vasigh, professor of economics and finance at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“The recovery depends on how fast we can eliminate the threat of coronavirus. I expect leisure trips, visiting friends and family, to rebound strongly in 2022. Because of economic uncertainties and advancement in technology, business travel will take longer to (fully) recover.”
National passenger traffic as tallied by checkpoint counts from the Transportation Security Administration show a dramatic dip after the pandemic hit in March 2020. Since then, it’s been a steady recovery. Passenger counts in 2021 steadily approached 2019 numbers until falling off slightly at the end of the year.
Some experts have pinned the slight December drop to short-term worries about the omicron variant.
Scheduled seats at PIT in the first quarter of 2022 show an increase that is approaching pre-pandemic levels. Airlines have continued to add capacity back into the market since the initial drop at the start of the pandemic.
The additional seats translate into more flights, destinations and bigger planes. Recent additions at PIT include:
- British Airways has announced that London-Heathrow service will return to PIT beginning early June 2022 with four weekly flights.
- Allegiant launched year-round service to Melbourne, Florida, on Nov. 11. The flights operate on Thursdays and Sundays.
- Southwest resumed Cancun service, which operated sporadically throughout the holiday season. After a brief hiatus, regular service will return on Jan. 22.
Ultra-low cost carriers like Allegiant and Spirit recovered more quickly after the initial drop in 2020, and this year they sometimes exceeded pre-pandemic levels. The bigger legacy carriers were slower to recover but are now posting big gains.
Over the past six months, American, Delta, Southwest and United have all shown triple digit year-over-year increases in passengers at PIT. Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis has said the increases are evidence that business travel is coming back as legacy carriers typically carry the majority of business traffic.
While there is general consensus that business travel continues to lag, industry leaders have differed on its outlook for the future, particularly in light of the rise of video conferencing. Speaking to investors in mid-December, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the rise of remote work and remote learning has helped reshape the way some people can travel, according to Simple Flying.
“There’s nothing inherent to video conferencing that restricts mobility. Video conferencing actually enables mobility, allows you to take your office with you. It doesn’t force you to stay at your house. You can if you want to, but it doesn’t force you. It allows you to stay engaged,” Bastian said.
“And so I think we’re going to have more remote work opportunities, more flexible work patterns. All of that’s going to enable mobility. All of that’s going to feed into travel, some with business, some with new forms of travel.”
While traditional commercial aviation is trending upward toward pre-pandemic levels, flying at general aviation airports is already exceeding that.
Numbers through November at Allegheny County Airport, which handles private business flying, helicopters, medical transports and private pilots with their own planes, show nearly a 5 percent increase from 2019—and about a 17 percent increase from 2020.
Part of the increase in private flying is the increase is private business travel through the pandemic, a trend that industry leaders say is likely to continue.