Key Points:

  • O'Hare International Airport recorded a 22% rise in international flight passengers in July, reaching 91% of the pre-COVID numbers from July 2019.

  • While domestic passengers showed a slight increase, corporate travel is still lagging behind pre-pandemic levels.

  • With an upswing in international travel demand, industry insiders see it as the key to long-term aviation growth.

O’Hare Airport sees a notable increase in international passengers in July

Tourism and Corporate Travel Still on Recovery Path in Chicago

CHICAGO — According to the latest data, O’Hare International Airport saw a significant upswing in July, with the volume of passengers on international flights rising by 22% compared to the previous year. This promising rebound brings the numbers to 91% of the pre-COVID figures from July 2019. In contrast, the numbers from a year earlier only reached 74% of the pre-pandemic levels.

O’Hare’s Vital Role in Tourism

The increase in international travelers is good news for both O'Hare and Chicago, given their heavy reliance on tourism. However, it also underscores the observation that corporate travel, another key revenue stream for the city and airport, is yet to make a full comeback.

Domestic Travel at O'Hare

The airport's domestic travel numbers are also showing slow signs of recovery. Compared to the previous year, domestic passengers rose by 5%, making it 85% of pre-pandemic counts. In aggregate, the airport operated at 86% of its pre-COVID passenger volume in July.

John Grant from OAG, a travel-research company, comments on the trend, “Post-pandemic, the U.S. initially experienced a boost from its strong domestic market. Following this, international travel saw a resurgence.”

International Demand and Impact

A significant factor driving the increase in international flights is the accumulated desire for overseas visits, both for reconnecting with loved ones and for leisure vacations. This surge has led to aircrafts being filled to capacity. Although O'Hare holds a top position among U.S. airports for international travel, largely due to connecting flights by carriers like United and American, it doesn't match the raw passenger numbers of coastal hubs like JFK in New York.

International passengers, making up roughly 20% of O’Hare's total, tend to spend more, boosting revenue in the airport and surrounding areas like hotels and restaurants. Their presence also stimulates the demand for domestic connecting flights. For instance, Cathay Pacific’s nonstop Hong Kong flight catered to over 100 domestic connecting flights, as noted by Chris van den Hooven, Senior VP for the Americas at the airline.

Outlook on Future Growth

Long-haul international flights are projected to be the aviation industry's growth driver in the latter half of this decade. As Andrew Nocella, United’s Chief Commercial Officer, pointed out after the airline ordered 50 more Boeing 787s, “The U.S. domestic market is mature, and the majority of our anticipated growth will stem from global long-haul flying."

Challenges with Domestic Flights

While international travel seems promising, domestic flights are experiencing turbulence. Airlines are grappling with pilot shortages, especially impacting regional-jet carriers. With O'Hare relying heavily on regional service, more than any other major U.S. airport, and corporate travel yet to fully recover, challenges remain in restoring the airport's domestic service to pre-pandemic standards.

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