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
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
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
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
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
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.