Pandemic smacked US passenger traffic to 1985 levels

Shutterstock / Angel DiBilio

According to the data released by the United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2020 passenger numbers dropped to a level unseen since 1985.

On February 16, 2021, the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics released its preliminary 2020 passenger numbers showing that airlines carried 62% fewer scheduled service passengers in December 2020 than in December 2019. Overall, due to the coronavirus crisis, the US airlines carried just 368 million flyers in 2020 compared to nearly 923 million in 2019. 

For all of 2020, US domestic air travel fell by 58.7%, while international travel fell 70.4% as many countries imposed significant travel restrictions. 

According to data from trade group Airlines for America (A4A), representing American Airlines (A1G) (AAL), Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines (LUV), and other airlines, the passenger numbers dropped to the levels last seen in 1985. 

The largest US carriers have all finished the 2020 with record losses, the total mounting up to $43.8 billion. In January 2021, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) reported a net loss of $8.9 billion for the year 2020, a record in the company’s history. Southwest Airlines (LUV) also reported its first annual loss of $3.1 billion since 1972, while JetBlue (JBLU) losses mounted to $1.4 billion. In 2020, United Airlines suffered a net loss of more than $7 billion, the largest net loss since 2005.

The vaccine rollout is offering some hopes for passenger traffic recovery in 2021. “While we don’t know exactly when passenger demand will return, as vaccine distribution takes hold and travel restrictions are lifted, we will be ready,” said American Airlines Chairman and CEO Doug Parker.

However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that passenger traffic in 2021 will increase by just 38% compared to last year, while Airlines for America predict the recovery to drag until 2023 or 2024.

On February 15, 2021, the US lawmakers approved a $14 billion bailout package to support the country’s airlines and their workers through September 2021. Earlier, in December 2020, the country’s airlines received a $15 billion state aid that helped the carriers to recall furloughed workers and pay the employee wages and benefits, avoiding layoffs until March 31, 2021.


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