Holiday travelers return to Mineta San Jose International Airport

After a turbulent year, the Mineta San Jose International Airport is seeing a promising uptick in passengers traveling for the holidays.

Approximately 300,000 passengers passed through the airport from Nov. 19 through Nov. 28. Daily traffic data is not yet available, but airport officials say overall travel volume was nearly three times higher than the same period in 2020.

“Thanksgiving week and the following weekend saw some of the highest volumes since March 2020,” airport spokesperson Keonnis Taylor told San José Spotlight.

Traffic numbers for 2021 are roughly one-third below the 2019 Thanksgiving traffic—546,000 passengers, a record year for the airport. But the increase in holiday travelers is a promising sign the pandemic’s negative impact on air travel is slowly fading—a welcome development for the airport, which saw tremendous decline in passengers during COVID-19.

“One of the things we’ve seen this year driving air traffic right now are the leisure and holiday travelers, which I think is a good sign,” said San Jose Airport Commission Chair Dan Connolly. “I was very happy seeing the numbers we had coming into the Thanksgiving holiday, and I would expect the same traffic during Christmas.”

The Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport is pictured in this file photo.

Taylor said the airport projects holiday traffic to remain strong during December, with approximately 400,000 to 450,000 travelers using SJC.

Air travel across the country dramatically declined during the pandemic. The downtown San Jose airport, with a $1.2 billion debt from its massive expansion and modernization projects, has seen its debt triple in the last decade and experienced a 53{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} drop in passengers in April. Even though travelers are returning, the airport is still grappling with financial ramifications from COVID-19. For example, the San Jose City Council recently voted to continue negotiations on how to distribute federal relief money to airport vendors. According to a city memo, many food-related businesses and retailers are struggling to make a profit as recently as October.

The airport doesn’t yet have revenue data available for Thanksgiving week. Taylor said one positive indicator for the airport is the increase in parking revenue. This year, the airport collected $591,900—more than double what was taken in during the same period last year. While travel volume is improving, Taylor noted TSA screened roughly 35{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} fewer passengers in recent weeks compared to 2019, which means the recovery is still in progress.

Before the pandemic, holiday travel played a critical role in the economy of downtown San Jose. Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, told San José Spotlight it was encouraging to see several events taking place downtown during Thanksgiving, including the opening of Christmas in the Park. He’s waiting to see if the number of visitors downtown climbs back up this year as people return to flying.

“Downtown becomes a regional destination for people coming to celebrate these holiday traditions,” Knies said. “And part of the holiday tradition is traveling to see family.”

Capturing holiday traffic would be a boon for downtown, which is still grappling with a lack of foot traffic and the shuttering of numerous businesses, including the Fairmont San Jose hotel, which once hosted many out of town travelers.

The appearance of the omicron COVID-19 variant in San Francisco could potentially affect people’s willingness to travel during the holidays. But local business leaders say their experiences in the airport puts their minds at ease.

“I had a chance not too long ago to walk through the airport and see what they had done from a health and safety standpoint, and I was so impressed,” said Derrick Seaver, CEO of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce.

President Joe Biden is expected to extend the mask mandate for airplane passengers to mid-March 2022, according to recent news reports. International travelers will also be tested for COVID-19 one day before departing for the U.S. as part of the government’s effort to curb the spread of variants.

Connolly told San José Spotlight he’s concerned panic over the new variant could potentially tank air travel during December.

“I believe it’s important that our officials put coronavirus into perspective,” Connolly said. “There’s no reason not to encourage people to enjoy time with their families.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.