Oregon Insight: PDX air travel soars to highest level of the pandemic, airlines add more destinations

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Here is The Oregonian’s weekly look at the numbers behind the state’s economy. View past installments here.

Oregonians are flying again.

Nearly 775,000 people traveled through Portland International Airport in March, more than twice as many as did in February. While still well below normal travel patterns, the March passenger count was by far the highest in the year since the pandemic began.

The airport forecasts travel will be up again in April, to 813,000 passengers, and a number of airlines are expanding service — restoring flights to Europe and a number of domestic destinations.

There are several possible explanations. March is spring break in Oregon, always a busy travel month. And Oregonians – like people everywhere – are tiring of the pandemic restrictions and missing family and their favorite vacation destinations.

Above all, though, the soaring passenger volumes surely reflect the effect of the vaccines.

The number of fully vaccinated Oregonians is now approaching one million. The vaccines are proving highly effective, with cases of serious COVID-19 infections extremely rare.

It took until April 2 for federal health authorities to advise that “Fully vaccinated people can resume domestic travel.” But many people didn’t wait for the government to acknowledge that travel is generally safe for vaccinated flyers.

Air travel is picking up all over the country. More than 38 million people flew in March, up from fewer than 25 million in February. Airports in sunny locales are hopping – in some cases busier than they were before the pandemic.

Airlines are responding by adding flights. Sun Country Airlines restored service to Minneapolis on Thursday and Condor Airlines will resume flying to Frankfurt, Germany, on May 21. Icelandair will resume flying in and out of Portland on July 2.

Still, it may be many months – or perhaps years – before air travel returns to pre-pandemic travel volumes. In March 2019, 1.5 million people flew through PDX – nearly twice as many as flew last month.

But business travel, in particular, may never return to normal. Zoom meetings have proven highly effective at gathering colleagues from remote worksites and it’s not clear businesses are eager to restore air travel to their budgets.

Any resumption in air travel is a potential boost for Portland’s hospitality industry, which continues to struggle. Hotels near the city’s core are still mostly empty even as lodging in other parts of the state is filling up.

Many of the people flying in March may have been Portlanders themselves, finally taking that long-deferred vacation, or catching up with friends and family they hadn’t seen in a year. But more air travel at least gives the city a chance to bring visitors back to Portland and repair some of last year’s economic damage.

— Mike Rogoway | [email protected] | twitter: @rogoway | 503-294-7699

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