Right after the July 4th holiday, I was asked to comment on Airport MDT’s Traffic Recovery in an interview with a local TV channel. Below is my quick analysis. I hope it may also help you understand the air traffic recovery pattern in other US airports.

Largest airports in Pennsylvania in terms of passenger throughput from Jan 1, 2019

Harrisburg International Airport (airport code MDT or HIA), is the third largest airport in Pennsylvania. It serves the capital of Pennsylvania – Harrisburg, and areas around it. The airport features daily non-stop flights to more than a dozen cities.

Non-stop routes from the MDT airport
Air traffic recovery of large PA airports and US average

According to US Transportation Security Administration data, the recovery of the three largest PA airports is basically on par with the US average (the blue line) in the above chart. However, Harrisburg Airport actually has the following unique characteristics. Its performance is caused by some positive factors and negative factors.

  1. Harrisburg International Airport used to have many business trips.
  2. There is a big concentration of air traffic between Harrisburg and Florida airports, especially Orlando.
  3. Harrisburg International Airport has less international traffic than other US “international” airports.

My knowledge of Harrisburg is limited. The only place comes to mind is Hershey Park. But I have lots of air traffic data. 794 million US related air trips occurred in 2019, the latest normal year before the COVID19 crisis. The U.S. has about 330 million people. So on average, each person had 2.4 air trips per year. In contrast, 723,300 air trips originated from MDT. Harrisburg has a population of 50,000. So on average, each resident in Harrisburg had 14.5 air trips per year. Even if we double the denominator because the airport also attracts travelers from nearby counties, the average air trip metric is still much higher than the US average. This indicates that many air trips from Harrisburg are business trips because only those “road warriors” can boost the average so much.

Having a big share of business trips is a negative factor right now because this sector has not recovered at full speed yet. We can see this pattern from both destination share changes and airline share changes, based on traffic data collected and estimated by FlightBI.

Number of passengers by destination from the MDT airport
Destination share from the MDT airport

As shown in the charts below, ORD (Chicago) used to be the largest destination airport from Harrisburg. The absolute volume chart has a similar shape as those of other US airports: Traffic to every destination was down to the ground in April 2020 and then slowly came back. But if we change the chart to 100% stacked bars, you will see the market share of ORD is much lower than before.

Passengers by airline from the MDT airport
Airline market share from the MDT airport

There are basically five airlines operating from the MDT airport – American (AA), Delta (DL), United (UA), Allegiant (G4) and Frontier(F9). Allegiant and Frontier are Ultra Low Cost Carriers flying to tourist destinations. Most business trips are served by the top 3 legacy carriers. As shown in the 100% stacked bar chart above, the shares of legacy carriers were squeezed by ULCCs, especially at the beginning of the recovery in May and June 2020.

The biggest contributor of US air recovery is leisure trips. SFB and MCO are MDT’s 2nd and 4th largest destinations. Both of them serve Orlando, FL. Allegiant flies to SFB while Frontier flies to MCO. Besides those, we can also see PIE (Tampa) and PGD (Punta Ganda) are gaining more shares in recent months. With those destinations, we expect total traffic from MDT to grow faster than the US average during this summer because many families are planning to spend time at the beach or theme parks. On the other hand, this may also lead to a temporary slow down after schools start in early September. Airlines know this. That’s why we see United and Frontier will reduce capacity to those destinations in September and Allegiant will withdraw its flight to MYR (Myrtle Beach, SC) even in the middle of August.

Number of flights deployed by airlines from the MDT airport

Harrisburg has some international trips to vacation destinations such as Vancouver Canada, Cancun Mexico, Aruba and Punta Cana. Before the crisis, those trips accounted for about 6% of total trips from MDT (see the left chart below). After COVID19, that share was reduced by half to 3% because there are many restrictions of international trips and people became more cautious. International travel from other US airports is in the same situation. Compared to other US airports, which had 25% of total trips as international trips on average before the crisis (see the right chart below), Harrisburg is lucky. Even if it takes much longer for those international trips to recover, the overall impact to MDT will be limited.

Domestic vs. international air traffic from the MDT airport

US domestic vs. international air traffic

Thanks to the mass vaccination, more businesses are open and people are returning to offices. I think business trips will recover as early as this fall. We had video conference technologies long before COVID19, but many business people still prefer face to face meetings. This is good news for Harrisburg Airport, because it will see another wave of strong growth. I think that airlines agree, as American and United are adding more capacity from MDT after this October.

Why do some US airports recover faster than others?