Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco International Airport has consistently ranked among the top ten busiest airports in the country. Mineta San Jose International Airport has just broken its record for the most passengers in a year. Auckland International Airport has been looking to revive the growth streak it saw for half a century before a slight decline in 2019.
But the pandemic confused them all. And today, more than 18 months after coronavirus became the dread word, Bay Area airports are lagging far behind other major US airports that are struggling to return to their heyday.
As of September 2021, both SFO and Mineta San Jose handled roughly 54% of passengers than in September 2019, while Oakland handled 68%.
Meanwhile, other major airports across the country, including Chicago O’Hare, Dallas and Seattle-Tacoma, are recovering much faster, serving at least 77% of passengers than in September 2019. And in Denver and Charlotte: air travel has grown to almost the level of 2019.
So what makes the three airports in the Bay Area that attract slightly different groups of travelers who share a similar fate?
Experts say one possible explanation can be found in the region’s more cautious approach to combating COVID-19.
In March 2020, the country’s first closure orders were passed in the Bay Area, and the world’s largest tech companies headquartered here have yet to open offices. Meanwhile, some big companies in other parts of the country have been back in office for months now.
“We all enjoy traveling here, but as a region we consistently show that we listen to the advice of health experts, and that advice until recently discouraged people from traveling,” said Henry Harteveldt, who travels from San Francisco. industry analyst.
“This is a downward cycle for us,” he added. “Because we are less likely to drive, and because our recovery rate is lagging behind other airports, the airline will say,“ Well, if I’m going to put a $ 150 million car on the market, I’ll send it to the big a transport hub such as Dallas or Atlanta, or one of the Bay Area airports? and at that moment they will most likely choose the first. “
Another factor contributing to the slow recovery of airports is that business travel, which many expected to pick up as more people were vaccinated, were unable to weather the surge in the spread of the Delta Variant virus this summer.
Before the pandemic, major Gulf tech companies such as Apple and Google regularly brought in employees and consultants from across the country and the world for meetings and conferences, but now much of this interaction takes place remotely.
While domestic and tourist travel is recovering faster, prospects for the region’s airports remain dim until international and business travel picks up again.
“No one knows the day, month, or even quarter when everything will be completely normalized,” said Mark Keel, director of air travel development at Mineta San Jose, known by some as the Silicon Valley airport. “I think we’re pretty resilient, but we need to go back to work, go back to the offices using a hybrid approach or something, and then go back on business.”
In addition, for the SFO, which serves as a gateway for international travel between the US and Asia, tight travel restrictions and quarantines for US residents heading to Asia have been a setback.
Airport employees had to make difficult decisions to recover the losses.
At Oakland International, this meant postponing equipment upgrades until concessions. Some expansion plans for Mineta San Jose have remained on the sidelines. SFO has postponed more than $ 2 billion in planned overhaul projects, including the refurbishment of Terminal 3, where United Airlines operates. The reconstruction of the terminal has not yet been postponed, although initially construction was supposed to begin in the summer of 2020.
However, officials at each airport remain optimistic that traffic will recover and planned projects will be completed.
Over the past two months, Southwest and Delta have added new routes from Oakland International Airport. And on November 21 – the Sunday before Thanksgiving – the airport handled 87% of passengers on the same day in 2019.
“We are delighted to see what we are seeing in terms of customer response and expect to continue adding flights to the schedule,” said Bryant Francis, director of aviation at the Port of Auckland.
SFO officials hope the Biden administration’s decision earlier this month to open US borders to vaccinated foreign travelers will also help speed up his recovery.
International passengers accounted for 25% of SFO traffic before the pandemic – a significant figure that only a handful of other airports in the country could rival – but that figure declined when strict travel restrictions and quarantine protocols were imposed around the world.
Everything is changing now. Earlier this month, French airline French Bee resumed flights to Tahiti. Air Lingus plans to resume flights to Ireland next month. United is expected to offer non-stop flights from San Francisco to Paris again in December.
“We were pleased with not only the announcement itself, but also the timing of the announcement, because we knew that by implementing it in early November, it would give airlines and airports the opportunity to attract more international activity during the year-end holidays. moreover, if it was a January 3rd implementation, ”said Doug Yakel, a spokesman for San Francisco International Airport.
Meanwhile, Oakland International Airport, which is recovering faster than San Jose and San Francisco airports, will have to stay competitive and hone in on the domestic and leisure travel it considers its bread and butter.
“I don’t see the current state of air travel in the Bay Area as the new norm,” said travel analyst Harteveldt. “I see this as part of a series of steps up the ladder to recovery, which I believe will be close to pre-pandemic passenger numbers at Bay Area airports, if not 2022, I think 2023 at the latest. … “