Examining TSA data for US passenger screenings, the number of passengers has risen remarkably over the last week from the doldrums in early February to nearly pre-pandemic levels as we approach the last week in February, averaging nearly 1.9 million daily passengers over the last 10 days. Is the tide turning for air traffic, or are we seeing a “spring break” seasonal variation? We’ll soon know the answer if traffic levels continue to grow in March and close in on 2019 levels, or fall back short of pre-pandemic levels.
The following chart illustrates 2022 traffic in red against the blue 2019 baseline and orange 2020 pre-pandemic levels, which crashed in early March that year. 2022 traffic is closing in on those pre-pandemic levels in recent weeks, closing the gap between 2022 and 2020. It is easy to discern that the white space between the datasets has generally closed, with the datasets moving atop one another during in the last week. While traffic has not quite fully recovered, it is closing in at more than 90% of pre-pandemic levels last week.
Another indication of the tide turning is our AirInsight Performance Index. That index, after being in a downturn mode since November, seems to have hit an inflection point and is now rising again from Mid-February. Should this continue, it would another positive sign for the industry. A graph of that index follows.
In addition, over the last three weeks, the average index level has been consistently rising, as shown in the following table. That also portends well for the tide turning in the industry.
The industry has adapted and down-sized aircraft flying many routes, particularly with international travel still being difficult and restricted in Asia. As a result, the average number of passengers per flight remains down from prior levels, indicating a recovery that is not quite yet at former levels. In terms of passengers per flight, there has not been a turning tide, despite the increasing traffic trends.
The following chart shows average passengers per flight and clearly illustrates that while overall passenger numbers may be returning, the airlines have maintained flight frequencies but are using smaller aircraft. The regional jet and narrow-body markets remain strong as airlines reduce their risk with less expensive aircraft to operate and lower risk to fill. Once international traffic returns, with larger equipment, these numbers could quickly turn upward.
The Bottom Line: Is the tide turning?
While there are hopeful signs from increasing traffic, the industry still has a ways to go to return to pre-pandemic performance levels. Early 2022 shows movement in the right direction, and an uptick in demand. The question is how long that uptick will continue and whether momentum continues to grow. We’ll know more by the end of the 1st quarter. Stay tuned.
President AirInsight Group LLC