Airport Activity

How busy are the region’s airports?

Airport Activity

Airport activity refers to the number of passenger boardings at Bay Area commercial airports and to the quantity of goods – measured in tons – that arrive in the region as air cargo.

In an era of expanding global trade and mass tourism, airports are not merely portals into and out of a city; they are important gauges of – and contributors to – the economic activity that drives major metro areas. While most people associate airports with passenger travel, these transportation hubs also play an important role in goods movement. Air cargo may not compare in volume to the ocean-going freight that passes through seaports, but it tends to be made up of higher-value commodities and goods.

Passenger Performance
Passenger travel at Bay Area airports has steadily grown over time, primarily at San Francisco International Airport.

Passenger boardings at Bay Area airports have outpaced population growth, increasing nearly 24 percent since 2001 to a total of more than 34 million in 2015. This reflects growing air travel demand from Bay Area residents, as well as increases in connecting passengers. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) has seen particularly robust growth. With 70 percent of our region’s total passenger boardings, SFO is clearly the Bay Area’s busiest airport, accounting for all net regional passenger growth in the region since 2001. Passenger levels at both Oakland International Airport (OAK) and San Jose International Airport (SJC) still remain below 2001 levels as a result of recession-era airline service cuts that hit midsized airports hardest.

Sonoma County Airport (STS) in Santa Rosa recorded just 129,000 boardings in 2015, 0.4 percent of the regional total. Since Alaska Airlines resumed service to Santa Rosa in 2007, the airport has provided a valuable alternative for North Bay residents traveling to select West Coast cities. If regional demand for air travel continues to increase over the coming years, excess capacity in Santa Rosa, Oakland and San Jose may provide relief to SFO, the region’s primary passenger hub.

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Historical Trend for Airport Activity — Passenger

Freight Performance
Bay Area airport freight levels have not fully bounced back from the Great Recession.

Most of the region’s domestic air cargo activity occurs at Oakland International Airport (OAK), a regional hub for FedEx. OAK saw a 24 percent drop in air cargo tonnage during the Great Recession, and freight volumes at the airport have remained lower ever since. While tonnage has slowly grown in the last six years, shifts in the freight industry toward more efficient ground transportation are a challenge for attracting air cargo business, including at OAK.

Other Bay Area airports experienced even steeper reductions than OAK in cargo volumes. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) saw a 43 percent decline and San Jose International Airport (SJC) saw a 52 percent drop in tonnage from 2007 to 2015. SFO and SJC were particularly impacted by shifts in the high-tech manufacturing industry, starting with the dot-com bust when high-tech goods production moved away from the Bay Area. As an international freight hub, SFO has also endured declining cargo volumes due to shifting trade routes, resulting in goods from Asia bypassing the Bay Area via a more direct routing through Alaska.

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Historical Trend for Airport Activity — Freight

National Context
Over the past decade, the strong California economy has spurred substantial growth in boardings at Los Angeles and Bay Area airports.

Similar to the Bay Area, major metro areas across the country have seen rapid growth in passenger boardings in recent years. This rapid growth marks a turnaround from the trend seen in the earlier part of the century, when air travel slowed as a result of the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001 and the Great Recession of 2007-09. Between 2013 and 2015, passenger boardings at airports in the 10 largest U.S. metro areas grew by 10 percent. While the Bay Area had the second-fastest growth rate during this period, Dallas topped the list with 17 percent growth due to the continued strong performance of Dallas-Fort Worth International (DFW) and new low-cost carrier operations at Dallas Love Field (DAL).

Metro Comparison for Airport Activity — Passenger


Federal Aviation Administration: Passenger Boarding (Enplanement) and All-Cargo Data for U.S. Airports (2001-2015)

Image: Flickr (Creative Commons license), Photographer: David Montiverdi

Methodology Notes: 

Depending on airport size, the enplanement (or boarding) data for passengers comes from either the Primary or Commercial Airport data tables produced annually by FAA, as some smaller airports shift between these designations over time. Metro area analysis includes all commercial aviation airports included in the metropolitan area boundaries; for example, the Bay Area includes all four airports in its total (San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Rosa).