Large numbers of travelers braved Mineta San Jose International Airport over the holidays even as a new COVID-19 variant ripped through the Bay Area.
An estimated 478,000 people traveled in and out of San Jose’s airport during peak holiday traffic in December. Airport spokesperson Keonnis Taylor said this data comes from the TSA, which recorded passenger traffic between Dec. 17 through Jan. 3.
The estimated total is nearly 300,000 below the number of travelers recorded during the same period in 2019, but more than double the number of travelers in 2020. The end of year holiday travel dovetailed with the arrival of the highly infectious omicron variant, which was first reported in Santa Clara County at the beginning of December. In just a few weeks, infections spiked in the county and across the country.
Taylor said the airport had 77 flight cancelations this winter, 67 of which occurred after Christmas.
“This coincided with elevated concern for the omicron virus,” Keonnis told San José Spotlight, adding that airlines would have to confirm the reasons for cancelations. “We do know that some impacts were due to weather around the country, though (we) have not heard from the carriers that any impacts were due to COVID specifically.”
November saw a similar increase in holiday air travel around Thanksgiving. Approximately 300,000 passengers passed through Mineta San Jose International Airport from Nov. 19 through Nov. 28—roughly three times the overall travel volume compared to the same period in 2020.
Flying during a respiratory virus pandemic remains a public health risk. But health experts say healthy, vaccinated individuals who wear masks face minimal risks on flights.
“The question is, how far do you go to eliminate risk or mitigate risk?” UC San Francisco epidemiology professor George Rutherford told San José Spotlight, noting the federal government toyed with the idea of screening domestic fliers for vaccination status, but decided against it.
“The judgment was made at the federal level that the amount of prevention that you’d achieve wasn’t worth the social cost,” he added.
Local business and community leaders are cautiously optimistic about reported airport travel numbers. San Jose Councilmember David Cohen, who serves as the council’s airport liaison, said the uptick in travelers looks encouraging.
“The Mineta airport is a vital artery to the businesses of our city,” Cohen told San José Spotlight. “I feel that any improvement in airport travel goes hand in hand with economic recovery.”
San Jose Downtown Association Executive Director Scott Knies flew out of the airport over the holidays and was pleased to see it bustling. He remains concerned the spike in COVID infections could derail the return of business travelers to San Jose.
“The pipeline isn’t as full with conventions, and the exhibitions and people going to the conventions have cut back,” Knies told San José Spotlight, adding the restaurant and hospitality industries are still struggling due to the failure of the convention business to come roaring back.
Holiday travel creates a positive ripple effect in San Jose’s economy, said Dennis King, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Silicon Valley. He told San José Spotlight most people travel to see family, shop for gifts while in town and dine at local restaurants. That, however, is seasonal.
San Jose’s airport has been used predominantly by business travelers, which King said could put a damper on future travel because so much business is conducted remotely. Downtown businesses are suffering due to the lack of foot traffic, exacerbated by tech companies letting their employees work remotely.
“The concern that some of us are watching is that various businesses that looked like they were going to start opening up for their employees to come back have now indefinitely postponed,” King said. “The fact that it’s indefinite is certainly a dark cloud.”