Passenger traffic at Boston Logan International Airport is showing clear signs of a rebound after a year of anemic travel because of the pandemic, part of a national trend that has more people flying amid increasing COVID-19 vaccinations.
Logan this month has seen an average of 17,456 passengers each day, according to the US Transportation Security Administration, an increase of about 50 percent since January.
While Logan officials characterized the shift as a “slight uptick” — the airport’s average for 2019 was more than three times that amount, about 58,000 passengers each day — the early signs of life are sparking hopes that air travel may be recovering more quickly than once hoped. Across the country on Thursday, the TSA counted 1.4 million passengers, more than any other day since the pandemic took hold.
“There are not just green shoots that are sprouting up, there are parts that are starting to bud,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst who is president of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco.
He said airline executives are becoming decidedly more optimistic in recent weeks, after a period of concern about this year’s travel because of the slow rollout of the vaccines at first. Now, they’re starting to believe the industry may be able to return to recognizable form as soon as the summer.
Harteveldt noted that many challenges remain. Most international destinations remain off-limits to US travelers, and business trips will remain drastically below their pre-pandemic levels for months. And he said there is still a concern that a premature relaxation of pandemic precautions could lead to further setbacks if new outbreaks take hold.
Researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health have reported that, with proper precautions, people on planes can have exposure risk that is “lower than other common settings, such as a grocery store or indoor restaurant.” But the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that there are risks associated with travel, and that even vaccinated people should delay trips when possible.
In this period of transition, Harteveldt said, it’s possible that Massachusetts’ relatively cautious reopening policies could help draw travelers here — especially as the weather warms, opening up more of the region’s outdoor destinations.
“Boston reflects the confidence we’re seeing with managing COVID and consumers’ desire to return to traveling,” he said. “It’s a great example of how if you are doing things in the right way, people feel better about returning to the things they were comfortable doing and liked doing before the virus hit.”
While Massachusetts hasn’t exactly thrown open the gates for leisure travelers, it has softened the rules people must follow when they arrive. Most people entering the state from other places had been required for months to either quarantine or show that they had tested negative for the virus. On Monday, that order will be downgraded to an advisory.
The favorable national travel trends have Logan’s largest carriers beginning to prepare for what they hope will be a busy period in coming months.
Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian said this week at a virtual J.P. Morgan Industrials Conference that he believes the industry is on a path to recovery.
“We’ve seen some glimmers of hope over course of the last year, but they’ve been false hope, I think, in most regards,” Bastian said. “But this seems like it’s real. It seems substantive. And though we’ve got a long ways to go yet, we’re in a much better place than we’ve been in quite a period of time.”
And CNBC reported this week that JetBlue Airways will move earlier than expected to call back flight attendants who have been on leave.
“As we enter a new phase of the pandemic with case counts going down and vaccination rates going up, our focus is now getting ready to safely ramp up our operations for a busy summer season,” JetBlue said in a memo to flight attendants reviewed by CNBC.
Still, the early signs of strength for the industry have not yet reached some of the people whose incomes depend on the economic effects of travel.
Munim Khan, a driver who works with Uber and Lyft, said Logan has not yet come close to providing enough passengers to make airport business worthwhile. The wait for passengers is too long for a driver working around Logan to generate enough trips to offset the costs of short rides.
“If someone comes to downtown, it’s a disaster for drivers,” Khan said.