U.S. airlines’ passenger counts plummeted 60% in 2020

Traffic on U.S. airlines reached its lowest level since the 1980s

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The number of passengers flying on U.S. airlines fell 60% in 2020 as most travelers stayed home during the COVID-19 pandemic, new federal data show.

The passenger counts were at their lowest level since the mid-1980s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The number of flights also dropped as airlines recorded the fewest since federal reporting began in 1987.

The nation’s airlines carried a total 369 million passengers last year, according to the federal data released Thursday. That’s down from 927 million passengers in 2019.

Credit: Source: U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Credit: Source: U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Domestic passenger counts were down 59%, while international passenger counts were down 70%. International traffic typically makes up about 12% of passengers on U.S. airlines. However, the data released Thursday does not include passengers on foreign carriers.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines — which, compared to some smaller carriers, has a greater share of the international and business travel — saw its passenger traffic decline by nearly 70%.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where Delta has its largest hub, had a more than 60% decline in passenger counts in 2020.

Traffic levels nationally remained down 60% or more into the first few weeks of this year. However, passenger counts at airport security checkpoints in the past month have climbed above the 1 million mark on some days, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration.

A recovery in air traffic is “expected to accelerate heading into the summer months with greater vaccination rates and the release of pent-up travel demand,” according to a Thursday report by bond rating agency Fitch Ratings. Leisure travel will lead the recovery, particularly domestic travel, but it is expected to take years.

“We are forecasting a prolonged recovery for the air travel industry, with full recovery in the U.S. not expected until 2024 at the earliest,” the report said.