San Jose leaders are cautiously optimistic an uptick in air travel over the Thanksgiving holiday is a sign the local airline industry—and by extension, the economy—is rebounding from COVID-19.
The Mineta San Jose International Airport predicts about 438,000 passengers will pass through its doors over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. According to airport data, 73,862 passengers passed through the South Bay air hub from Nov. 18-21, an increase of nearly 23% compared to the same period in 2021.
Approximately 300,000 travelers passed through the airport last Thanksgiving.
“The (local) economy benefits when more people travel to the city,” David Cohen, a San Jose councilmember and council airport liaison, told San José Spotlight. “It’s great to see people traveling more for the holidays and using San Jose airport once again.”
The air traffic influx could lead to increased foot traffic in San Jose, a good sign for small
businesses, Cohen said. This is especially important as the city continues to reel from an economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
This years’ uptick may be the start of a trend. Last holiday season also saw an increase in airport passengers despite the spread of the omicron variant, and travelers surged to the airport leading up to the Fourth of July this year.
Passenger numbers this year are up 221% over 2020, when COVID shutdowns grounded flights across the globe and safety precautions such as mask mandates and reduced passenger loads discouraged customers from flying. Multiple airlines declared bankruptcy as a result and economists predict it could take years for the industry to recover—if it recovers at all.
“Everyone in aviation was worried and didn’t know what was going to happen,” airport spokesperson Ana State told San José Spotlight. “All the restrictions that were in place were not helping the industry at all.”
While the increase in passengers is a good sign for the recovering industry, it also shows that aviation hasn’t fully returned to pre-pandemic levels. This year’s Thanksgiving passenger count is still down nearly 21% compared to 2019.
One reason may be the stubborn lag in business travel. Because San Jose isn’t a recreational tourism hot spot, the airport relies on Silicon Valley’s once-booming tech industry to bring passengers to the airport, said Dan Connolly, chair of the San Jose Airport Commission.
The increase in passenger traffic this year has largely been due to a rebound in leisure travel. This is true across the industry as companies continue to rely on remote work, Connolly said.
“We have to be realistic about the fact that companies learned how to do business differently during COVID,” Connolly told San José Spotlight. “A lot of companies figured out, ‘Maybe I don’t have to fly people across the country; we can just have a Zoom meeting.’”
The tech sector has also seen massive job cuts in recent weeks as Meta, Twitter and PayPal laid off tens of thousands of workers. At the same time, Silicon Valley’s cost of living continues to rise, pushing business expenditures higher and making it more difficult to retain local workers.
Connolly is concerned these combined factors could cause business traffic to take another nosedive at Mineta San Jose International Airport in the coming months.
“When you’re having to lay people off, (companies are) concerned about the bottom line, so your business travel will decrease because of that,” he said. “We’ll have to see in a couple years whether or not things fully come back.”