According to TSA data, passenger traffic showed a significant increase in holiday travel compared to 2020, but was 20 percent less than pre-pandemic numbers. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

The Numbers Are In: Holiday Travel Up, Still Lagged 2019

Passengers across the country took to the skies over the holiday season in huge increases over 2020, but volume still lagged behind pre-pandemic levels, according to new data.

National checkpoint counts from the Transportation Security Administration show that more than 30 million people flew between Dec. 18 and Jan. 2, a 61 percent increase over the same period a year ago.

However, compared to the same time period in pre-pandemic 2019, it’s about 20 percent lower, the data shows.

That’s no surprise to travel experts who say leisure travel surged in 2021 but was dampened somewhat over the holidays by the surge of the omicron variant.

Locally, Pittsburgh International Airport saw even bigger increases in year-over-year holiday travel compared to the national trend. More than 160,000 passengers went through the checkpoint during the two-week holiday rush. That’s up 90 percent over a year ago but, similar to national figures, down about 21 percent from 2019.

Luxury Travel Advisor Christina O’Toole of Pittsburgh-based Avenue Two Travel, said her business for 2022 remains strong.

“I’ve had a few cancellations because of omicron, but nothing that causes me to be overly concerned because people are ultimately learning to live with these variants,” said O’Toole.

“I’m focused on leisure, and the bookings are up. I am extremely busy with booking to Europe for the summer and the fall; 2022 is moving in the right direction. People need to travel, and people want to spend time with families and immerse themselves in a destination.”

Colorado-based aviation consultant Michael Boyd said he expects leisure demand to remain strong in 2022 but was more pessimistic on business travel. He credited ultra-low-cost carriers with continuing to stimulate demand with low fares and competing with legacy carriers for leisure travelers.

“Instead of buying a new kitchen, people are getting on an Allegiant trip and going to Punta Gorda, having a great vacation,” Boyd said in a forecast video on his website. “Those kinds of things weren’t there 10 years ago. They’re a part of air transportation that airlines have to face and deal with.”

Legacy carriers also remain optimistic. On an earnings call this week, Delta said there was a silver lining in omicron hitting during what is typically a lighter season for bookings, and by the time this wave of COVID passes, there will be plenty of time for leisure travelers to still book vacations, according to CNBC.com.

Business travel may be slower to return but Delta doesn’t see the death of business travel, as some have predicted. The airline surveyed corporate clients in mid-December, 80 percent of which said they would travel the same or more in the first quarter of 2022 than they did in the fourth quarter last year, said Glen Hauenstein, Delta Air Lines president, on the earnings calls, CNBC.com reported.

He expects that in the spring and summer, demand for business travel will be strong “as people get back into the regular routine and feel safe traveling.”

Staff writer Evan Dougherty contributed to this report.

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