A Year Like No Other At Chicago’s Airports

March 5, 2021

Strong cargo growth and new airline service provide signs of optimism amid the most disruptive year in industry history. O’Hare passenger traffic down 63.5% from 2019; Midway down 57.5%

CDA Media Relations    773.686.3700 | cdamedia@cityofchicago.org

CHICAGO – Capping a truly unprecedented and disruptive year in the history of the aviation industry, the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) today released its annual passenger and operations data for 2020, showing significant increases in cargo activity amid significant declines in passenger and operations traffic at both O’Hare and Midway International Airports. The aviation industry was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and continues to grapple with its effects. 

Approximately 30.9 million passengers traveled through O’Hare in 2020, compared to 84.6 million in 2019 — which was a record. That’s a decrease of 63.5%. Midway welcomed about 8.9 million passengers last year, down from 20.8 million the year before – a decrease of 57%. 

Cargo was a significant bright spot in 2020, with O’Hare handling 14.8% more metric tonnage last year than in 2019, despite the loss of cargo capacity in the bellies of passenger flights that weren’t operating because of the pandemic. O’Hare saw 30,399 cargo flights in 2020 and processed more than 2 million metric tonnes of freight. O’Hare is the #1 airport in North America for cargo by value at more than $200 billion per year, and is one of the top 20 busiest cargo hubs in the world (currently #18 globally). In the first half of 2020, O’Hare processed more cargo by value than any other port in the U.S. – land, air or sea.

“It would be an understatement to say that 2020 was a challenging year for Chicago’s airports and our partners,” CDA Commissioner Jamie L. Rhee said. “I am beyond proud of the dedication and hard work that the CDA staff and the entire airport community put into keeping O’Hare and Midway running safely and efficiently throughout the pandemic, allowing for continued essential travel and the transport of crucial goods like vaccines and personal protective equipment. The City of Chicago has always been resilient, as has the aviation industry, so when people are ready to travel again in a post-pandemic world, we’ll be ready to connect them.”

There were 538,211 aircraft operations at O’Hare in 2020, down approximately 41.5% from the 919,704 in 2019, when it earned the distinction of world’s busiest. Midway recorded 150,198 flights last year, down 35.3% from 232,084 the year before. Full air traffic data is available on the CDA’s website.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airlines operated 4,721,342 domestic passenger flights in the full year 2020, a 41% drop from the 7,938,055 flights in 2019. That drop in flight numbers was compounded by a drop in the number of passengers on each flight. On domestic flights through the first 11 months of 2020, only 54% of seats were occupied compared with 85% for the same months in 2019. The report can be found here. The travel data and analytics firm Cirium, meanwhile, estimates that passenger traffic was down 67% in 2020 compared to 2019.

Despite the industry-wide impact of the pandemic, several airlines have added new service at Chicago’s airports. Most recently, Southwest Airlines started its first-ever flights at O’Hare on February 14, 2021, while continuing to serve its major hub at Midway. Ultra-low cost carrier Allegiant Air began service at Midway in the Spring of 2020 and has thrived. Several critical international routes are scheduled to resume service in the months ahead, as well. 

On the cargo front, the Chicago City Council in January approved a lease agreement between the City and Aeroterm to develop an expansion to O’Hare’s Northeast Cargo Facility, which will further boost the airport’s cargo capacity and create hundreds of jobs. 

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