PDX continues to lag national rebound in air travel

This is Oregon Insight, The Oregonian’s weekly look at the numbers behind the state’s economy….

PDX continues to lag national rebound in air travel

This is Oregon Insight, The Oregonian’s weekly look at the numbers behind the state’s economy. View past installments here.

Nearly 64 million Americans flew on airlines in March, the highest monthly total since COVID-19 hit two years ago. Passenger volumes nationwide approached 90% of pre-pandemic levels as infection and hospitalization rates plunged.

Passenger volumes are bouncing back in Portland, too, but not nearly as fast.

Approximately 1.2 million passengers flew in or out of Portland International Airport in March, according to the latest data. That’s up by half compared to March 2021 — but still down 27% from March 2019.

The residual falloff in Portland air travel is more than twice as steep as the national decline, and the gap is getting wider.

It doesn’t appear there’s a single explanation for why air travel isn’t rebounding as fast at PDX, but there are several possibilities:

  • The omicron variant hit Oregon later than elsewhere in the country, which meant the state emerged more slowly from the latest spike in infections. That may have depressed Portland air travel early this year.
  • Business travel was an especially large part of PDX’s passenger volume, according to the Port of Portland, which runs the airport, and Oregon businesses have been slower to return to the office than companies elsewhere.
  • Airlines prioritized their main hubs as air travel began recovering — and as they triaged a shortage of pilots and flight crews — according to the port, which meant fewer flights to secondary destinations like Portland.
  • Airlines haven’t restored most international flights through PDX yet. Airlines are adding direct flights to Amsterdam, London and Frankfurt this summer.
  • Reputational damage the city suffered during 2020′s unrest may make Portland a less attractive destination for tourism. (That wouldn’t explain, though, why the gap between national air travel and PDX passenger volumes widened considerably during the winter months, a historically quiet period for Portland visitors.)

Port spokesperson Kama Simonds said airport managers are optimistic that travel demand will pick up “in a substantial way” this summer and fall as more Oregon companies return to the office and business travel picks up.

However, other trends may depress air travel both here and around the country. Airline ticket prices were up nearly 40% in the early part of the year, reflecting rising fuel prices and surging demand for travel.

And Simonds said crew shortages are prompting airlines to substantially reduce the number of flights.

For example, last winter Alaska Airlines was forecasting 121 daily departures at Portland in July. It later cut that forecast to around 100 daily flights and now expects as few as 70 some days in July, according to Simonds.

Alaska Air is the busiest airline at PDX. With so many factors in play, Simonds said it’s too soon to know just how summer will play out.

“These schedules are pretty dynamic,” she said. “The airlines have learned to be really flexible over the past few years, and July is still a few months away, so we may see more changes in the months to come — either with the addition of or reduction of flights.”

— Mike Rogoway | [email protected] | Twitter: @rogoway |