Passenger counts at Northern Virginia’s two commercial airports showed a comeback in 2021 from the depths of the COVID crisis in 2020, but have a lot of ground to make up to return to pre-COVID levels.
The total passenger count at the two airports for the full year stood at 29.05 million, up 82.6 percent from 2020, according to figures reported by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
Figures broke down this way:
• The passenger total at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was 14 million, up 85 percent from the 7.6 million recorded in 2020.
• The passenger total at Washington Dulles International Airport stood at 15 million, up 80.1 percent from 8.3 million in 2020.
That’s the good news. But there remains significant ground to make up: In 2019, the passenger total was 23.9 million at Reagan National, 24.8 million at Washington Dulles, according to authority figures.
Despite the arrival of the highly contagious if relatively benign omicron variant of COVID at the end of 2021, December’s passenger counts showed significant increases compared to December 2020.
At Reagan National, 1.8 million passengers traveled through the airport, up 370 percent from a year before. At Washington Dulles, the total was 1.6 million, up 126 percent.
Reagan National’s major year-over-year rebound in December could be pegged, in part, on the decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to once again require airlines to use their take-off and landing slots allocated to them at the airport, or risk losing them.
From the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 until late summer 2021, the use-it-or-lose-it policy for slots had been put on hold. With its return, airlines ramped up their service to the airport, which for much of the pandemic had seen some of the greatest declines in passenger traffic.
As a result of the return of the slots policy, American Airlines – the dominant carrier at Reagan National – saw a year-over-year growth rate of 462 percent in December, followed by Southwest (up 410 percent) and Alaska (380 percent).
Transborder (U.S.-Canada) service at Reagan National in December was up 571 percent from a year before, owing to a rebound in service from American Airlines and Air Canada.
At Dulles, international service was coming back, up to a point. For the year, 3.5 million passengers were traveling to or from international destinations, up 69 percent from a year before. For December, the half-million passengers flying international represented an increase of 150 percent from a year ago, with British Airways up 300 percent and Air France up nearly 280 percent.
Nationally, the estimated 670.4 million passengers traveling by air in 2021 represented an increase of 83 percent from 2020 but a decline of 27 percent from 2019, according to preliminary figures reported by the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
For December, the national passenger count was up 118 percent from a year before but still down 16 percent from December 2019.