Air travel at the Bay Area’s three airports has finally begun to soar after taking a nosedive during the pandemic, but plenty of obstacles now confront travelers seeking to get out and about as the hazards from the coronavirus begin to recede.
San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco international airports have seen big increases in passenger travel in recent months and airlines are launching new long-haul and domestic routes to entice more people to take to the skies.
British Airways just resumed nonstop flights between London Heathrow and Mineta San Jose International. And ZIPAIR, a relatively new low-cost airline, said it will offer flights between Tokyo-Narita airport and San Jose this December.
At San Francisco, Condor is offering new service to Germany’s Frankfurt area and Swoop is offering service to Edmonton in Canada. In Oakland, Spirit Airlines is offering new flights to connect the East Bay with San Diego and Newark in the New York City area, while Hawaiian Airlines is offering flights to Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The resumption of nonstop flights between Silicon Valley and London “represents a significant milestone in our recovery,” San Jose International’s director of aviation John Aitken said in a statement.
A rebound is also underway for airports throughout the United States, according to Brett Snyder, founder and author of the Cranky Flier airline industry site, surging dramatically from last summer.
“Nationwide, things are absolutely booming,” Snyder said. “Demand is enormous for domestic travel and nearby international travel — Latin America and Europe especially.”
International travel has been especially slow to rebound. But this month, the U.S. said it would no longer require passengers flying in from a foreign country to show a negative COVID-19 test, easing a previous restriction.
Even so, air travelers must navigate a forbidding landscape if they want to fly. Skyrocketing fuel costs, a lack of aircraft, a shortage of skilled pilots and a quest by airlines to ratchet up ticket prices as they scramble to recover from pandemic-linked economic woes are all adding to the list of air travel obstacles.
“Ticket prices are definitely higher now,” said Carmen Silva, a resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, who was visiting San Jose this week to meet her boyfriend. “In March, I paid $380 for a roundtrip between Raleigh and San Jose. This time I paid $1,000.”
And while some travelers are sick of being cooped up and willing to shell out large sums to fly, others are staying away, with some would-be passengers still wary of crowded spaces and no mask requirements on flights as the virus continues to spread.
Monthly passenger activity at the Bay Area’s three aviation hubs still remains far lower than prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus in March 2020, when federal, state and local government agencies imposed wide-ranging business shutdowns and limited travel.
Measured by airplane seats departing, a metric compiled by Cirium, which tracks aviation trends, it’s clear that all three Bay Area airports are struggling to fully recover from the COVID-linked passenger losses.
In June 2022 compared with June 2019, San Francisco’s airport is down 25.1%, San Jose is down 20.2%, and Oakland is down 9.5%.
But there are encouraging signs. Passenger levels at all three travel hubs are up from a year ago, according to statistics released by the trio of international airports.
San Jose International handled 972,600 passengers during April, which was up 108.9% from the same month in 2021. Oakland International handled 918,500 passengers in April, up 53.8%. In March, San Francisco International handled slightly more than 3.09 million passengers, up 166.9% compared with March 2021.
Oakland is recovering its vanished passengers more quickly than either the San Jose or San Francisco airports. The East Bay’s aviation hub relies more heavily on domestic leisure travel, while San Francisco has typically relied on transpacific flights, many of which were halted because of the virus.
“San Jose is more of a business market and not as much of a leisure market, and business travel has recovered very slowly,” Snyder of Cranky Flier said. “San Jose has struggled more than other markets to recover. It’s tied to Silicon Valley, which is really a business market.”.
“Things are tougher for San Francisco airport because SFO is a gateway to the Pacific,” Snyder continued. “Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing are still constrained. Even South Korea and Japan are only slowly starting to open.”
Still, demand is increasing across the region and airlines appear to be responding even as they struggle to rebound. Southwest Airlines, for instance, said it will introduce nonstop flights between Palm Springs and San Jose starting Nov. 6. In San Francisco, Breeze Airways is offering new flights to San Bernardino; Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Louisville, Kentucky; and Westchester County in the New York area.
But the news isn’t all so great for consumers. Strong demand means high ticket prices aren’t going anywhere, especially during the summer months when travel is especially popular.
“There is a huge amount of demand based on a limited supply of flights,” Snyder said. “Airlines know demand is really high, so prices are rising.”
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