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.
Last updated Oct 23, 2020 | By Ben Walker
Coronavirus Airport Recovery Study

FinanceBuzz is reader-supported. We may receive compensation from the products and services mentioned in this story, but the opinions are the author's own. Compensation may impact where offers appear. We have not included all available products or offers. Learn more about how we make money and our editorial policies.

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.

Jump To

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

1,281,848

133,272

-89.60%

2 John F. Kennedy International Airport JFK

1,253,303

134,135

-89.30%

3 Newark Liberty International Airport EWR

1,368,063

166,791

-87.81%

4 San Francisco International Airport SFO

1,942,856

240,512

-87.62%

5 Boston Logan International Airport BOS

1,505,224

195,526

-87.01%

6 Salt Lake City International Airport SLC

661,452

92,884

-85.96%

7 Daniel K. Inouye International Airport HNL

702,970

101,431

-85.57%

8 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport MSP

1,622,115

236,388

-85.43%

9 Washington Dulles International Airport IAD

728,713

112,729

-84.53%

10 Los Angeles International Airport LAX

2,796,261

445,037

-84.08%

11 Chicago O'Hare International Airport ORD

3,184,200

533,834

-83.23%

12 Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport DCA

1,009,837

173,092

-82.86%

13 George Bush Intercontinental Airport IAH

1,473,575

253,036

-82.83%

14 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ATL

4,208,340

723,451

-82.81%

15 Portland International Airport PDX

870,373

152,733

-82.45%

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

30,693

338,884

1004.11%

2 Baltimore/Washington International Airport BWI

34,804

348,157

900.34%

3 McCarran International Airport LAS

59,886

474,247

691.92%

4 LaGuardia Airport LGA

19,113

133,272

597.28%

5 Denver International Airport DEN

122,131

837,863

586.04%

6 Newark Liberty International Airport EWR

24,984

166,791

567.59%

7 Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport DCA

26,701

173,092

548.26%

8 Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport FLL

44,011

274,203

523.03%

9 Miami International Airport MIA

41,727

258,773

520.16%

10 Orlando International Airport MCO

66,502

406,860

511.80%

11 Tampa International Airport TPA

39,960

238,226

496.16%

12 John F. Kennedy International Airport JFK

23,103

134,135

480.60%

13 San Diego International Airport SAN

36,877

209,490

468.08%

14 Boston Logan International Airport BOS

35,451

195,526

451.54%

15 Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport DFW

190,038

998,875

425.62%

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.

Methodology

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.

#1 Travel Rewards Card

Benefits

  • 60,000 point sign-up bonus
  • 2X points on eligible dining and travel purchases
  • 25% more value when redeeming rewards for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Premium travel protection benefits