Where US Airports Stand In the Recovery

Schedule Changes

There has been a lot of talk lately about how the airlines have raced to add capacity regardless of their ability to actually operate it. That is true, and Delta proved that with disappointing Q2 results yesterday thanks to pressures from that overeager growth eating into the expected higher profits. We’ve seen it all over the world with massive security delays, horrible lost bag problems, and weak performance.

Casual observers might assume this means every airport is bursting at the seams, but that’s not the case. So, I sat down with a dram of Port Charlotte, Cirium data, and Great Circle Mapper to look at the current state of things.

Let’s start in the US where the difference can be rather dramatic. In a post next week, I’ll look at international markets.

I debated whether to use flights or seats for my metric, but in many places the problem seems to be based on the number of travelers/seats and not on runway capacity — New York airports being the exception — so I stuck with seats. For all of these maps, I compared July 2022 scheduled departing seats to July 2019.

First up we have the top 10 airports in the US based on 2022 numbers. Here’s that map:

Top 10 US Airports by Scheduled Seats – July 2022

Map via Great Circle Mapper,
First line is July 2022 rank followed by (July 2019 rank)
Last line is percent change in seats July 2022 vs July 2019

Atlanta unsurprisingly remains number one, but it is still more than 15 percent below the number of seats it had operating in 2019. This is mostly a function of Delta remaining more conservative.

You can definitely see a trend of where the capacity is going. Global hubs are hurt the most while the more domestic-centric hubs that serve the middle of the country along with leisure destinations have done better. One airport that has bucked that trend to some extent is Dallas/Fort Worth which is both a booming global hub and a massive domestic operation for American. It is still down very slightly vs 2019, but it jumped two places in the rankings, leapfrogging Chicago O’Hare and Los Angeles.

LA is the big loser in the top 10, still about a quarter below its normal seat count. You might assume this is about Asia and the fact that it really hasn’t reopened, but that’s not it. It’s everything. Domestic capacity is still down more than 21 percent. Here’s how that breaks down by airline.

LAX Domestic Departing Seats July 2022 vs July 2019

Data via Cirium, Green shows seats for July 2022, Red shows what was lost since 2019.

American’s discontinuation of its Asian hub in LA has had broader impacts as it has dropped in the domestic market from 1st to 3rd place. But all of the top 5 airlines are down significantly. This is just not a market where capacity has been prioritized. Anyone who has been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the LAX horseshoe lately — that’s EVERYONE who has gone to LAX — might be surprised to hear it’s down as much as it is. This should give traffic nightmares about what the future will hold with more growth.

There really aren’t any other surprises in the top 10, except I will point out JFK as being a real outlier here. Slot usage rules remain suspended for international travel, but that’s not the case for domestic travel. So, July 2022 seats are actually UP 7.6 percent vs 2019 thanks to the American/JetBlue growth in the Northeast Alliance. But internationally? Seats are down 16.9 percent.

Now let’s shift a bit. I looked at the top 100 airports by number of seats in July 2022 and then pulled out the five biggest gainers.

Top 5 US Airport Gainers by % Change in Scheduled Seats – July 2022 vs July 2019

Map via Great Circle Mapper,
First line is July 2022 rank followed by (July 2019 rank)
Last line is percent change in seats July 2022 vs July 2019

There aren’t many surprises here. Austin has been a very, very hot market. It’s been so hot that it has basically faced gridlock much of the day. Bozeman, Myrtle Beach, Fort Myers… those are all destinations that have benefited from a shift toward more domestic travel thanks to international closure during the pandemic. I will be curious to see if those new flying levels can be supported going forward.

And then there’s Fresno. I think we can all agree that Fresno is another one of those hot outdoorsy leisure destinations… oh wait. No, this is just because Southwest went into the market. Nothing to see here.

On the other side of the coin, we have the biggest losers. And here they are.

Top 5 US Airport Losers by % Change in Scheduled Seats – July 2022 vs July 2019

Map via Great Circle Mapper,
First line is July 2022 rank followed by (July 2019 rank)
Last line is percent change in seats July 2022 vs July 2019

The biggest loser of all is Guam which has really just kind of died on the vine during the pandemic. That will likely come back again as Asia opens up, so it’s hard to read much into that. But over on the mainland, you have some of these more secondary markets, with Dayton clinging to its spot in the top 100 despite a massive traffic drop.

What’s up in Milwaukee? Nothing good. The two largest airlines in the market, Southwest and Delta, remain down about a third. Though Spirit and JetBlue have entered the market, Frontier has slashed it, nearly offsetting the new entrants.

And lastly, there’s Portland, OR. Poor, Portland. This falls largely on Alaska’s shoulders. Portland’s biggest airline is down nearly 40 percent. This is primarily because Alaska realized that it was overscheduled and it had to pull down. It will protect Seattle at all costs, and that means Portland suffers. Alaska is running a great operation this summer, but Portland may not love that. Even the hotly-contested Seattle market is down more than 11 percent. That’s the best performer of the biggest West Coast airports.

There are some other important markets that I thought worth pointing out, and here they are.

Other Notable Market Changes – July 2022 vs July 2019

Map via Great Circle Mapper,
First line is July 2022 rank followed by (July 2019 rank)
Last line is percent change in seats July 2022 vs July 2019

Speaking of long-suffering West Coast airports, there’s San Francisco dropping 5 spots out of the top 10 entirely. There’s a triple whammy going on here. First, this is a hugely important Asian gateway, and most Asian airlines remains severely reduced on their flying. Second, United is the largest airline, and its Asian gateway is a shell of its former self. That also impacts the need for United’s domestic capacity. And third, Alaska is the second largest airline and it has treated SFO better than Portland… but not as well as Seattle. It still remains well below where it was.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Miami which jumped 6 spots. As bad as Asia has been, Latin has been the opposite. Miami has also become the hot destination, adding Spirit, Southwest, and JetBlue since the 2019 numbers. There is no surprise there.

Up in the Northeast, LaGuardia and National are doing quite well and that is again because domestic slot waivers no longer exist. Those flights have to operate or the slots will go elsewhere, so the airlines have wasted their resources flying there. At LaGuardia, the upgauging of American regional flights and shifting of slots with JetBlue has made a big difference. Meanwhile at Washington/National, the opening of the new regional concourse has allowed American to use bigger regional aircraft on many routes, and that has had a tangible impact.

Newark has not had the same level of performance. It is down, though not down that much. And much of the decrease is probably thanks to United cutting back to avoid a complete standstill at the overcrowded airport.

Lastly, we have the mighty Midway. How the heck is this hemmed-in airport seeing that much growth? To start, the 800-pound gorilla Southwest is using bigger airplanes. Departures are up 2.5 percent vs 2019 but seats are up over 7 percent. On top of that, you have the entrance of Frontier, Allegiant, and Avelo along with big growth from Volaris.

So there you have it. Traffic is not where it used to be, but it sure feels like it is. And there are very large variances between airports. Next week, we’ll look at the international world where things are running even more poorly.

39 comments on “Where US Airports Stand In the Recovery

  1. These are the types of analyses I really like to see.

    I haven’t been following that market/locale, but I was a little surprised to see DAY down so much… Has CVG actually seen some decent fares in recent months? Historically DAY has been an alternative to CVG, especially as door-to-gate times to DAY from the suburbs around the northern side of the Cincy beltway (where much of the metro area growth has occurred, where there are some middle class+ towns, and where companies like Kroger and P&G have a fair number of offices) were similar to door-to-gate times to CVG.

    I know July is very much “off season” for Florida, but I’d also be interested to see how MIA, FLL, and TPA compare vs 3 years ago. I’m also curious as to the extent to which the “outdoorsy” destinations that were popular last summer (2021) remain popular this summer

    1. Without getting into too much detail, yes, CVG fares are down a lot. Looking back at Q1 2012, the avg fare was $236. It really started to come down in 2016. Avg fare in Q1 2022 is $150. Delta is still the largest airline, but Allegiant is now #2 and Frontier #4 (with American sandwiched in between). So, low fares are readily available.

      As for Florida, maybe that’s the subject of a different post, but Florida is surging in general.

      1. Thanks, Brett. Glad to see that CVG now has lower fares and some lower-fare carriers.

        When I lived in the Cincinnati area around 2012, CVG had few (if any) low-fare carriers and notoriously high fares, but was very strongly bracketed by a handful of airports within a ~1-2 hour drive (Dayton, Louisville, Lexington, Columbus, Indy) that mostly DID have lower fare options.

        Then again, that was just after the era in which prices for nonstops from CVG were so high that many people in the area got in the habit of booking R/Ts from DAY on Delta (which would usually connect through CVG, back when DL had a very large presence there), only to skip the CVG-DAY leg on the return and catch a ride home from CVG.

    2. Dayton has the highest airfares now in the area. In 2021 Q2, which is the last date BTS.gov shows DAY airfares. CVG was $279, CMH was $308, and DAY was $361.

  2. I am based outside Greensboro and surprised to see such a big decrease there — I haven’t really noticed that in my travels. Any insight on what is driving the decrease?

    1. Ryan – Greensboro is really everything. The big three are all down significantly with AA down 20.7%, Delta 28.7%, and United 31%. The only two other airlines in the market are Allegiant which is down more than half and Spirit which pulled out entirely. So I think the issue is really the lack of ULCC action to backfill the decreases by the big guys.

      1. Thanks! I guess I have been flying out of RDU more — just didn’t connect the dots that a lack of GSO seats was probably a factor.

        Also, I should have added — this was super interesting analysis all around!

  3. Thanks for collecting all this.

    In the Northwest, it’s been interesting to see the move away from Portland and towards Seattle. I fly from MFR and daily flights went from 6x to PDX and 2x to SEA before covid to 6x to SEA with PDX cut to 2x daily now. It makes sense not to run two full hubs next to each other, but PDX is just so darned pleasant to connect at. Oh well.

  4. The Fresno growth from the Southwest entry may not seem like a big deal, but to Fresnans (I used to be one) it shows the steady decline in “drive-offs”, people driving to an airport in the LA area or SF Bay to look for lower fares.

    So that’s good news for the Big Raisin.

  5. Fascinating. Thanks for all your effort. It would be interesting to see this kind of analysis every few months to track the progress (or lack thereof). How many of these changes will last, and how many are here to stay? Never a dull moment.

  6. The other point about LAX is that DL, AA and AS have several gates out of service. Most of the east side of T6 except 60 and the south gate on T4 46_ are closed and T3 only has 3 gates open.

    1. Good point on the gates situation. But one thing that makes me wonder is if Delta has the most gates effected with only 3 gates at T3, then how are they the ones that have recovered best when American who have almost all of T4 (except for 46) and a decent chunk at T5 been the ones that have suffered the most when it comes to scheduled seats?

      1. Not sure how long DL has had access to TBIT gates, but that surely helps. Also when back to check the T4 gate situation and according to LAWA 46B 46C, 48A, 48B, 49A and 49B are closed. This and the schedule changes Cranky mention combine to reduce AA at LAX.

        1. AA has been heavily using TBIT, especially the MSC. So I don’t know how much lack of gate space is really the issue.

  7. More great analysis, CF.
    There are a couple other factors that have to be considered and might be bigger drivers of the changes in capacity by market.
    1. Competitive markets are seeing increases in capacity by multiple airlines as well from specific carriers that are trying to use the recovery to gain an advantage.
    2. There is a clear shift in demographics in economic activity between states and even between cities within a region as a result of economic policies and work from home
    3. Airlines themselves are trying to refine their network strategies and use capacity changes to reach those goals.
    For the first point, DEN is a clear example of where United and Southwest are still throwing a lot of capacity at a market that is not only strategic for both but has the capacity to grow. Delta is adding more capacity and destinations to BOS than the overall rate of local market recovery because Delta is aiming to not just exceed but exceed JetBlue’s reach from Boston with or without the NEA.
    For the second point, the southern states are clearly winning and AA has more hubs in the south and growing markets than any other airline except for WN.
    And to the third, the converse is that AA is pulling down its presence in competitive northern markets more so than other carriers – which has an impact on how well other carriers will do in those markets. Conversely, Delta is maintaining the closest domestic capacity relationship between its “core 4” hubs of ATL, DTW, and MSP even though there are very different macroeconomic factors in each market; Delta did say on its earnings call that it expects its continue to focus on its competitive coastal hubs as the industry stabilizes.
    UA is trying to upguage its domestic network overall but can’t deny the reality of shifting demographics.
    WN has probably done the best job of growing its networks across all hubs/bases but is clearly being as protective as it can of its core markets like MDW. Having a single aircraft type certainly helps in moving capacity around.
    As fall schedules are confirmed, the real test will be how much of what we have seen with shifting schedules is permanent and how much will be “corrected”

  8. Great analysis Cranky!

    “And lastly, there’s Portland, OR. Poor, Portland. This falls largely on Alaska’s shoulders. Portland’s biggest airline is down nearly 40 percent.” A few comments on this, since this is my home base for travel….
    1. You would never be able to tell that based on looking at the car parks – long term was packed at the end of April when we traveled out for a week; ST garage was pretty full (seemed like normal) when I parked in there for a recent bus trip
    2. I would hope that the marketing gurus at PDX are working on plans b, c, d, e, etc. to attract other services to the airport – it is a very bad thing in business to have all your eggs in just one basket
    3. This should present a huge opportunity for other carriers to pick up the slack – the Portland metro area is still growing it seems, and so there is no lack of demand for travel to/from PDX – If Alaska is going to dump flights to defend SEA, let’s move on and get several other carriers to beef up their presence here! And, even with the 40% drop, PDX still has construction going on to expand, so more to offer anyone looking! …..
    4. WN, looking at you square in the eyes! You have a great opportunity here, as well as a pretty nice new concourse that I have flown out of several times now (although the food offerings definitely leave a lot to be desired in my opinion, especially after 4pm – not sure how this airport ever ranked as high as it does based on that fact alone?!?!) With Alaska dropping flights, we could use…..
    * 1-2 nonstops to Florida, to connect to Orlando / Disney and/or the FLL cruise hub
    * more non-stop flights to SoCal, like LAX basin & San Diego, and Phoenix
    * a couple more flights through your major E-W connecting hubs at DIA & LUV

  9. It might also be that a barrage of reporting on a variety of social issues in those left coast cities is suppressing demand as well.

  10. I ran some numbers I get for DFW, and the international passenger available seat numbers are up by about 10% over 2019, even with losses of flights to China.

    There are a number of new international flights here, mostly from OneWorld airlines moving to get a piece of the American pie. Iberia, Finnair, and THY all are new, for example.

    Domestic has lost a small amount, primarily due to American having to cut the schedules as a result of staffing issues.

    The airport is nearing capacity gate wise, and I imagine they will soon be getting back to work in developing Terminal F.

      1. But shouldn’t it have benefited from the bigger planes like Midway did? Or did it already have the big planes?

        1. Dan – They both benefited from larger airplanes. July 2022 vs July 2019 on Southwest, Love flights on 738/73H/7M8 are up 85.9% while Midway flights are up 81.8%. Love flights on the 737-700 are down 36.5% while Midway is down 24.8%.

      2. Another issue at Love is that Alaska is continuing to pull down their focus city there. The idea that Virgin had to build a focus city at Love didn’t really work out well for them, and now Alaska has operations at both airports. I expect them eventually to pull out, especially if they can work some sort of gate swap to get one more at DFW.

        Also, I believe the Delta/Southwest/Dallas fight over gate space at Love was recently settled.

        One other note. A couple of city council members dropped a note in the media that they wanted to expand the Love terminal from 20 gates to 24, and you’d think they threatened to blow up half of Dallas. That airport is STILL a sore point for people around it, 50 years later.

        As an aside, I had the opportunity to speak with the engineer that designed the current 20-gate Love terminal, and asked if they put anything in the plan to be able to expand it easily. His response was not just not no but hell no, it’s 20 gates forever. LOL.

  11. Is Milwaukee’s pull down a function of lower demand, or airlines figuring that Milwaukeeans can go to Chicago, so valuable human and plane resources are better used elsewhere?

    1. TRC92 – I don’t know the answer to that. Milwaukee was overserved for a long time when AirTran and Frontier and Southwest were all battling it out. Maybe there was some legacy of that extra service. Or maybe it’s just an easy place to cut since O’Hare is so close.

    1. HSaxa – San Jose has, it’s down 22.1%. But thanks to Southwest being the main operator in Oakland and there being little international, that’s down only 8%.

  12. Was traffic at IAD and BWI impacted by the increase at DCA? Or were they all trending upward as well? I know IAD probably lost some international traffic, but it seems that UA has been building up their domestic traffic. BWI would probably be an increase with the popularity of WN and NK?

    1. DC – I think Dulles and BWI are really separate entities from DCA. They just work so differently. BWI seats are down 13.4% while Dulles is down 9.6%. Southwest is down only 5.5% at BWI, but Spirit is down 45% and it’s the #2 airline there. At Dulles, United is down 7.2% but Delta and American are down a lot more, dragging it down further.

      1. At BWI, Southwest lost gates A1-5 due to work being done at the airport currently. This may have impacted BWI’s seat count.

  13. What exactly accounts for the shrinkage at ORD? I know it is a global gateway but I thought it was a critical domestic hub too, with regional service a huge portion of the traffic, serving secondary markets across the Midwest

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Cranky Flier