Airline passenger counts down but slowly returning to 2019 levels

Travelers are seen moving through Hartsfield Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia on January 16th, 2022.

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
Travelers are seen moving through Hartsfield Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia on January 16th, 2022.

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For U.S. airlines and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, 2021 was better than 2020. Still, passenger counts last year fell far short of pre-pandemic levels.

Hartsfield-Jackson had 75.5 million passengers passing through the airport last year, up 76% from the 42.9 million passengers in 2020. But it’s still far short of the 110.5 million passengers ATL had in 2019.

It’s yet to be seen if the Atlanta airport will officially reclaim the title of world’s busiest airport. That will be determined in a ranking by industry group Airports Council International, to be released later this year.

Across all airports, the nation’s airlines carried 670.4 million passengers in 2021, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That’s down 27% from the 916 million passengers that boarded planes in 2019, before COVID-19 spread across the country.

And, while that might seem alarming to some people, consider this: It’s an 83% improvement over 2020.

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Airline traffic has been on a recovery path for the past year, though it’s been a rocky one, with interruptions by the delta variant in August and the omicron variant in December.

Combined ShapeCaption
Airline passenger traffic is still below pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Credit: Source: BTS

Airline passenger traffic is still below pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Credit: Source: BTS

Combined ShapeCaption
Airline passenger traffic is still below pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Credit: Source: BTS

Credit: Source: BTS

Domestic passengers now make up a greater share of total airline traffic, at 91% in 2021 versus 88% in 2019.

While domestic travel has been recovering over the last year, international trips are still significantly limited by widespread travel restrictions. International passenger counts in 2021 were down more than 45% from 2019 levels.

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Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines in 2021 saw passenger traffic drop 43% from 2019 levels. While the carrier’s planes averaged 86% full in 2019, they averaged 69% full in 2021. The airline, which paid out $1,250 bonuses to employees on Monday to thank them for working through a difficult year, expects to return to pre-pandemic levels of flying by 2023.

In a survey of U.S. finance managers — conducted last month by travel and expense software company SAP Concur — 52% said their companies expect to resume business travel by the end of this year.