Through the first eight months of 2021, more people traveled on commercial airlines than in all of 2020. In August of this year, 60.8 million people flew on domestic commercial flights, more than double for the same month in 2020, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
August 2021’s 61 million travelers was 17% lower than August 2019.
One possible contributor to the rise in air travel is a drop in ticket prices. In the second quarter of 2021, the average cost of domestic airfare was $299, 25% lower than the same period in 2019 when tickets were $375 on average, after adjusting for inflation.
And while skies are a little more crowded, the friendly skies are less friendly since the pandemic started, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration. As of mid-November, there was 5,240 unruly passenger reports and 3,798 mask-related incident reports. The agency initiated a record 991 investigations into those reports, nearly seven times higher than in 2019.
And there are increasingly more flights for passengers to catch. The number of flights sharply decreased after March 2020 and haven’t yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, but they are rising. There were 180,617 scheduled flights in May 2020, the lowest monthly amount since 1987, the first year such data is available. The number of flights rose to 579,179 scheduled departures in August 2021. 12% lower than the number of flights scheduled in August 2019.
On-time arrivals are a side effect of the fewer flights nationwide. About 71% of flights since 2001 were considered on time — anything within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival. But since May of last year, 85% of flights showed up on time.
Holiday travelers this year might be less optimistic, though. As the number of flights increased, on-time performance started falling. In June 2020, 93% of all flights arrived at the gate on time, the best month of the 21st century. By August 2021, on-time arrivals fell to 75%.
The increase in flights since spring 2020 means that airlines increased capacity. Using a metric known as seat-miles — multiplying the number of seats in a plane by the miles flown — airlines flew a combined 92 billion seat-miles in August, up 81% from August 2020.
Despite the capacity increase, planes are fuller than at the start of the pandemic. Passengers filled 14% of that capacity in April 2020, an all-time low. In August 2021, 78% of capacity was filled. For comparison, passengers filled 84% of seat-miles in 2019.
While air traffic is still below pre-pandemic levels, it’s looking like 2019 at two airports. Of the 50 US airports with the highest traffic, San Juan, Puerto Rico and Fort Meyers, Florida had more people flying in or out in the first eight months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2019. Through August, 41.4 million people flew through Atlanta's airport, the busiest in the country. That was 65% of the traffic during the same period in 2019.
The last several months of air travel suggest that more people will fly this holiday season than in 2020, though definitive numbers won’t be available until early 2022. How people move around the country can be used as one of several metrics to measure how the US is recovering from the pandemic. Other metrics can be found on the COVID Recovery Hub.