Unacast wanted to know how foot traffic at US airports was recovering in the lead-up to the 2021 holidays.
To find out, we tapped Unacast’s BYO Venue Data Platform and built an online workbook to study traffic trends from 2019 until the end of November 2021 at some of the largest airports in the U.S., including Miami International, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago O’Hare, LAX and JFK.
In examining the data, we found that every one of the five airports had recovered more than 50% of the traffic it lost in 2020. The recent Thanksgiving weekend was a particularly interesting case both in terms of foot traffic volume and travel patterns – while pre and post Thanksgiving travel still waned vs 2019, traffic on Thanksgiving Day 2021 itself was up at three of the five airports that we studied.
Below are some of the other takeaways we noted. Read on, or click your way through the online workbook to find your own insights.
Miami Int’l and DFW traffic soars
A quick glance at the data tells us that those airports located in areas with less restrictive regulations show stronger recovery of foot traffic in 2021 as compared to those airports in areas with more stringent regulations.
After losing nearly 60% of traffic in 2020 vs. 2019, Miami International has climbed to within 2% of 2019’s traffic level. You can download more of our insights on South East Florida here. In a similar vein, after losing 53% of traffic in 2020 vs. 2019, DFW is now within about 4% of 2019 levels, solidly ranked as the second most recovered of the five major airports we looked at.
In the middle of the pack, as of the end of November 2021, Chicago-O’Hare bounced back to within 23% of 2019 foot traffic levels. That lags the leaders by a wide margin but the airport is recovered from -64% foot traffic in 2020 vs. 2019.
LAX clawed back about half of 2020’s traffic loss of nearly 68% vs. 2019. But that still paces the west coast’s busiest airport at -35% foot traffic in 2021 vs. the last pre-COVID calendar year. Keep in mind, this includes the recent Thanksgiving long weekend; a traditionally busy time for air travel at LAX.
New York’s JFK is the least recovered of the five airports we studied. Total foot traffic to the end of November 2021 was down over 37% vs. 2019. That compares to -72% in 2020. Foot traffic at JFK was down 34 to 40% for the duration of the week of Thanksgiving Day, even worse than LAX.
Thanksgiving travel trends are changing
Compared to 2019 foot traffic figures, Chicago O' Hare, DFW, and Miami International see an increasing trend of Thanksgiving Day travelers, perhaps capitalizing on reduced total foot traffic numbers in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic.
JFK and LAX airports see a total reduced foot traffic across the entire Thanksgiving week, with Chicago O'Hare also seeing lower traveler counts in the days prior to and post-Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving 2021 traffic specifically was weakest at airports in areas with greater pandemic restrictions. This includes incoming and outgoing travelers.
Catchment areas are generally shrinking
Chicago O'Hare had nearly 35% of its visitors coming from over 50 KM in 2019, a trend that sits at about 28% as of the end of November 2021. Is this the norm across other airports? It seems so.
JFK maintained a steady influx of visitors coming from 10-25 KM away in 2021, a distance that's within the bounds of Manhattan and Long Island, indicating strong usage by locals. That said, traffic is down everywhere outside of that 25km zone.
Miami International shows an increased fraction of local visitors (0-5 KM) and travelers from 10-25 KM away during Thanksgiving 2020. Perhaps these figures are an indication of the higher number of temporary, upwardly mobile COVID-era residents that have migrated to the area.
Every airport we studied has seen a reduction in the number of travelers who originate from more than 25km away despite short term 2020 growth in this metric for three of the airports we studied: Miami, JFK and O’Hare.
One outlier insight is that DFW has actually increased traffic from those originating within 10km of the airport – a unique trend line in 2021 and in line with DFW’s strong recovery. LAX, too, has grown local traffic from within 25km of the airport, perhaps an indication of recovery among locals traveling for business or pleasure.
While 2021 holiday foot traffic at the airports we studied is up significantly vs. 2019, overall it’s still down by 22 to 38% at O’Hare, LAX and JFK, each representing massive air travel hubs and markets. How will the evolving pandemic affect travel at these airports in 2022 and beyond?
In a break with traditional traffic patterns, pre and post Thanksgiving holiday travel was down 20 to 40% at four of the five airports, while Thanksgiving Day traffic was up 4 to 16% at three airports. Will this holiday-specific pattern play out again on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, as well?
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