Which U.S. Airports Are Recovering Fastest from the COVID-19 Travel Slump?

Air travel has increased in recent months as U.S. airports start to recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus Airport Recovery Study
Updated May 13, 2024
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The air travel industry has slowed dramatically since the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. Now more than six months after the pandemic was declared and the economy took a downturn, U.S. airports are beginning to see more traffic. 

However, as major U.S. airlines continue to announce huge layoffs of tens of thousands of airline workers, it’s clear there’s still a long way to go before the number of travelers gets back to what it used to be. In addition, restrictions are being put back in place in many areas and some of the airports that seem to be recovering may not be able to maintain that trend.

We decided to dig into the latest U.S. Bureau of Transportation data to find out how well the 30 largest airports in the U.S. were recovering after the first wave. Looking at the number of departing passengers from previous months and comparing them to more recent dates gave us a good idea of the progress that was being made as the air travel industry continues to grapple with the impact of the pandemic.

In this article

Worst-hit airports: June 2019 vs. June 2020

Looking at the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, we narrowed down the findings to the 30 busiest U.S. airports. We then compared the number of departing passengers on domestic flights on U.S. carriers between June 2019 to June 2020. This let us see the percentage of change between the months of June for both years. Then we ranked the top 15 airports by the biggest percent decline in departing passengers.

Overall, New York City airports topped the list with LaGuardia Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport placing first, second, and third. Because New York and New Jersey were two states that experienced strict statewide lockdown orders, it makes sense that their biggest airports would see a dramatic decrease in passenger traffic. New York and New Jersey continue to require a 14-day quarantine for any travelers coming to these states from states with a higher spread of COVID-19 (as of Oct. 14, 2020).

It isn’t particularly surprising to see other airports on this list that are located in populous areas, including San Francisco International Airport and Boston Logan International Airport. Air travel nearly stopped overnight around the country, so the largest airports would typically be the hardest hit.

Although airports like Daniel K. Inouye International Airport and Salt Lake City International Airport aren’t as busy as larger airports, they were still hit with a staggering decline in passenger traffic. Hawaii is known for its heavy reliance on tourism but has had to push back reopening to travelers multiple times over the past six months. Salt Lake City was in the middle of building a new airport when the pandemic started and Salt Lake County, where the airport resides, was under stricter stay-at-home orders than other parts of the state.

15 airports seeing the biggest decline in departing passengers

Rank Airport Code

June 2019 Departing Passengers

June 2020 Departing Passengers

% change
1 LaGuardia Airport LGA




2 John F. Kennedy International Airport JFK




3 Newark Liberty International Airport EWR




4 San Francisco International Airport SFO




5 Boston Logan International Airport BOS




6 Salt Lake City International Airport SLC




7 Daniel K. Inouye International Airport HNL




8 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport MSP




9 Washington Dulles International Airport IAD




10 Los Angeles International Airport LAX




11 Chicago O'Hare International Airport ORD




12 Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport DCA




13 George Bush Intercontinental Airport IAH




14 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ATL




15 Portland International Airport PDX




Airports seeing fastest recovery: April - June 2020

To see which airports are experiencing the fastest recovery for passenger traffic, we looked at data from April 2020, when flights were at their lowest, and compared that against June 2020, which was the most recent month available. We again looked at the number of departing passengers on domestic flights on U.S. carriers to see the percentage of change as we moved from April to June 2020. We ranked the top 15 airports by the biggest percent increase in departing passengers.

The Chicago Midway Airport has seen the fastest recovery, going from about 30,000 departing passengers in April to more than 338,000 departing passengers in June. Overall, that’s more than a 1000% increase. Chicago Midway International Airport was followed by Baltimore/Washington International Airport and McCarran International Airport.

McCarran International Airport experienced nearly a 700% increase in departing passengers between April and June. Las Vegas officially reopened its city to tourists on June 4, 2020, which initiated an influx of travelers to the casinos and hotels. With few tourist destinations welcoming people back, Las Vegas became a prime location for people looking to travel.

Although LaGuardia and Newark didn’t have a huge number of departing passengers in June, their numbers were so low in April that they still showed a massive percentage increase a few months later. Of course, these recent numbers are way below the numbers for June 2019, but it’s still a positive percentage change for this year.

Overall, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport saw the most departing passengers in June 2020, followed by Denver International Airport.

15 airports seeing the fastest recovery (April to June 2020)

Rank Airport Code

April 2020 Departing Passengers

June 2020 Departing Passengers

% change
1 Chicago Midway International Airport MDW




2 Baltimore/Washington International Airport BWI




3 McCarran International Airport LAS




4 LaGuardia Airport LGA




5 Denver International Airport DEN




6 Newark Liberty International Airport EWR




7 Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport DCA




8 Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport FLL




9 Miami International Airport MIA




10 Orlando International Airport MCO




11 Tampa International Airport TPA




12 John F. Kennedy International Airport JFK




13 San Diego International Airport SAN




14 Boston Logan International Airport BOS




15 Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport DFW




What to know if you plan to fly

A recent FinanceBuzz travel survey found that 49% of Americans don't plan to take a flight for at least a year, but 16% hope to travel by plane before the end of 2020. To prepare for travel after COVID-19, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Masks: Masks are required for air travel, including at the airport and on the plane. Some airlines, such as United Airlines, have recently tightened their policies regarding face coverings to remove any possible loopholes, like taking off your mask to eat or drink and then slowly eating or drinking during the entire flight so you don’t have to wear a mask. United’s policy now says, “All travelers are required to wear face coverings during their entire flight.”
  • Hand sanitizer: To help promote sanitation, the Transportation Security Administration is allowing one 12-ounce liquid hand sanitizer container per passenger in carry-on bags. This is larger than the standard 3.4-ounce liquid containers typically allowed. This may also result in additional screening at security checkpoints.
  • Airport lounges: Airport lounges are starting to reopen, though the experience will be different. Pre-portioned or packaged food may replace the buffet option in certain lounges, and face coverings and social distancing measures will be required. But if you have one of the best travel credit cards, you may once again be able to take advantage of complimentary access to Priority Pass lounges and/or Amex Centurion Lounges.
  • In-flight service: In-flight food and beverage services will vary by airline and are constantly changing, but prepackaged snacks and meals have been commonplace since the pandemic began. Some airlines may also have temporarily suspended food and/or beverage services or reduced capacity for them.


FinanceBuzz looked at publicly available data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, specifically reviewing data for departing passengers on domestic flights flown by U.S. carriers at the 30 busiest airports in the U.S.

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Ben Walker, CEPF, CFEI®

Ben Walker, CEPF, CFEI®, is credit cards specialist. For over a decade, he's leveraged credit card points and miles to travel the world. His expertise extends to other areas of personal finance — including loans, insurance, investing, and real estate — and you can find his insights on The Washington Post, Debt.com, Yahoo! Finance, and Fox Business.