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July 31, 2023

Philly’s airport has less flights and passengers than before the pandemic, data shows

In July, PHL saw nearly 30% fewer departures than it did in July 2019, one of the biggest decreases of any major U.S. airport.

Transportation Airports
Philadelphia International Airport THOM CARROLL/for PhillyVoice

Flight activity at Philadelphia International Airport has yet to fully rebound to its pre-pandemic levels, although a PHL spokesperson pointed to promising year-over-year trends.

Philadelphia International Airport is still struggling to get back to normal after the pandemic. While PHL flight activity has seen some year-over-year growth, it has yet to return to pre-Covid levels, according to new data.

In July, PHL reported 28% fewer scheduled flights and 14% fewer available seats than in July 2019, according to aviation industry data cited by the Philadelphia Business Journal. According to the data, 11,491 flights departed from Philly's airport this July, compared to 15,953 departures in July 2019.

Philly's drop in air travel is part of a bigger nationwide trend. Across the 200 biggest airports in the U.S., there was a 10% decrease in scheduled flights this July compared to July 2019.

While Philly isn't alone in its post-Covid lag in air travel, PHL is struggling more than most big U.S. airports to recover from the effects of the pandemic. Among the 30 biggest airports in the nation, only Detroit's reported a bigger decline than PHL between July 2019 and July 2023, making Philly's drop the second biggest. Chicago O'Hare was third with a 25% decrease in flights over the same time frame.

At PHL, the sluggish post-Covid rebound in air travel is caused by a variety of factors, PHL spokesperson Heather Redfern told PhillyVoice. There are fewer regional flights being offered, an ongoing nationwide pilot shortage and slower-than-normal growth in flight schedules stemming from the retirement of larger, wide-bodied aircraft.

While PHL is still behind on catching up to its to pre-pandemic flight volume, the airport is showing some positive trends. In May, for instance, passenger traffic at PHL was up 17% and international flight activity was up 42% compared to the same month last year. And while this July couldn't compete with the pre-pandemic flight activity of four years ago, there was a 7% increase in scheduled flights at PHL compared to last July.

"PHL continues to rebuild its capacity post-pandemic," Redfern said, while acknowledging that the airport has not yet fully recovered from the pandemic. Still, PHL has managed to positively move the needle on some post-pandemic metrics. In July, PHL saw an 18% increase in average seats per departure over the same period in 2019, meaning that flights are more fully booked than they were before the pandemic.

There's also been a huge increase in cheap flights departing from PHL. Lower-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit Airlines have significantly expanded their operations at the airport since before the pandemic, with Frontier reporting a 58% increase in booked seats between July 2019 and July 2023 and Spirit showing a 69% increase during the same period.

Since the onset of the pandemic, air travel in the U.S. has been plagued by a number of challenges. Nationwide, widespread flight delays and cancelations - especially around the holidays, like when Southwest Airlines canceled nearly 11,000 flights last December – have become the norm over the last few years as airlines have struggled to keep up with post-pandemic travel demand. Last August, American Airlines announced it was scaling back its operations out of PHL and cut 1,800 flights out of Philly last fall due to staffing shortages.  

For its part, PHL has been implementing a number changes designed to expedite and simplify the passenger experience. Earlier this month, American Airlines announced a new shuttle service that lets travelers check in and go through security at smaller regional airports like the ones in Atlantic City and the Lehigh Valley, and then take a bus directly to the departing gate at PHL and skip the TSA line in Philly. 

Meanwhile, those TSA security lines at PHL could soon be less painful thanks to a new real-time tracking system that lets passengers see the latest security line wait times before they arrive at the checkpoint. The new wait-time tracking system covers half of the terminals at PHL and is expected to be fully rolled out by next spring.