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Grounded for the holidays

Passengers at the Southwest Airlines counter at the Albuquerque International Sunport Nov. 24. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Passenger traffic to and from the Albuquerque International Sunport over the holidays was down nearly 70% this year, capping off a difficult year for New Mexico’s largest airport.

Between Dec. 18 and Jan. 1, the airport saw around 74,000 incoming and outgoing passengers, according to preliminary data provided by Sunport marketing manager Jonathan Small.

By comparison, about 243,000 travelers visited the Sunport over the same period in 2019, Small said.

While the shortage of commercial air travelers, which began when the COVID-19 pandemic reached New Mexico in March, has been hard on the airport, Small said he appreciates New Mexicans following state guidance and traveling only when necessary.

“Of course we miss our travelers, and the pandemic has had just a devastating impact on our operations,” Small said. “But at the same time, it’s good to see that New Mexicans are responding appropriately to the recent surge in cases.”

The pandemic and associated travel restrictions suppressed traffic to and from the Sunport for most of 2020. The number of people boarding flights at the Sunport bottomed out in April, at 96% below the total from April 2019.

Small said the numbers gradually recovered until around September. Since then, however, virus cases have increased, and Small said progress has stalled at about 70 to 75% below the previous year’s totals – including during the week leading up to Thanksgiving, when they were down 72.5%.

“That could be an indicator that people are taking the recent spike in cases a little more seriously,” Small said.

Nationwide, the holiday period was the busiest travel window since mid-March, according to data from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.

More than 1 million travelers passed through TSA checkpoints on a majority of days during the last two weeks of the year, peaking at 1.28 million travelers on Dec. 27, according to the federal agency.

Small said he didn’t want to speculate on why people in New Mexico might be traveling less, but noted that states with tighter restrictions are experiencing less traffic. He praised state officials for their work communicating the risks associated with the virus.

Small said there is a lot of uncertainty about what the air travel could look like in 2021, noting that some industry experts aren’t expecting travel levels to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

“We’re hopeful that, as the vaccines continue to roll out, people will feel more comfortable traveling,” Small said. “In the meantime, we will continue to do everything we can to make traveling through the Sunport as safe as possible.”

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