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Yes, some of South Florida's airports are more crowded

Passengers hustle to and from gates inside Miami International Airport's terminal D in this archival photo from 2017.
courtesy: MIA
Passengers hustle to and from gates inside Miami International Airport's terminal D in this archival photo from 2017.

There likely will be a record number of travelers passing through Miami International Airport and Palm Beach International Airport this year, while passenger traffic at the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport has yet to rebound to its pre-COVID-19 levels.

As the busy holiday travel season dawns, South Florida airports have helped lead the way in the sharp snapback of travelers returning to the air.

That rebound happened earlier in Florida as tourists sought out the sun and fewer COVID-19 restrictions in 2021 and 2022. While the rate of passenger growth has slowed considerably, more bodies continue passing through regional airports.

Both MIA and PBI are on track for record-breaking years.

A new analysis of American airports that are the largest municipal bond borrowers finds Miami International Airport has led the nation in recovering passenger traffic that disappeared during the pandemic. BofA Global Research found MIA "leading the pack," as reported by The Bond Buyer. MIA had $5.6 billion of bonds backed by revenue generated by the airport according to its most recent annual report.

A JetBlue Airways Airbus A320, left, passes a Spirit Airlines Airbus A320 as it taxis on the runway, July 7, 2022, at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale. The two carriers combine for almost half of the marketshare at the airport. JetBlue is trying to buying Spirit, though the federal government has sued to stop it. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
Wilfredo Lee
/
AP
A JetBlue Airways Airbus A320, left, passes a Spirit Airlines Airbus A320 as it taxis on the runway, July 7, 2022, at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale. JetBlue is trying to buying Spirit, though the federal government has sued to stop it.

Palm Beach International Airport fell just 250,000 passengers shy of a record year last year. For the 12 months ending in September, PBI passenger count is up 15% compared to a year earlier, all but guaranteeing a record year this year.

While Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport continues to see year-over-year passenger growth, it remains below its pre-pandemic numbers. Through September, passenger counts at FLL are 5% below 2019. It would have to see over 5.5 million more passengers in the final three months of this year in order to trump its 2019 total. And that's possible — FLL saw over 8 million passengers in the final quarter of last year.

The airport expects to return to exceed pre-pandemic passenger levels in 2024.

"Airlines have experienced differing levels of recovery at FLL, which is among the factors contributing to this shortfall," Broward County Aviation spokeswoman Arlene Satchell wrote WLRN in an email.

Two of the airport's top carriers, JetBlue and Southwest, have each experienced double-digit drops in passengers this year. JetBlue is in a fight with the federal government over its effort to buyout Spirit Airlines, the largest carrier at FLL. Meantime, Southwest recently announced plans to move most of its international flights from Fort Lauderdale to the Orlando International Airport next year.

Wait times

Getting all those people through security takes time. The wait time at TSA Security at Fort Lauderdale's airport during the winter holidays last year was one of the longest, according to an analysis of TSA data by travel site Upgraded Points. Security wait time average 9.1 minutes at FLL for Thanksgiving week and the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. That made FLL the sixth longest wait among the 63 airports in the analysis.

"Our airport is typically very busy with crowds of travelers during such peak travel periods, which can impact the time it takes to move through security processing," said Satchell, noting the Transportation Security Administration is responsible for airport security screening screening.

Palm Beach International wait times matched the average among the busiest airports at just under six minutes. The wait time at MIA clocked in at just under five minutes during the winter holidays last year.

These times are averages for all checkpoints during all hours of operation.

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A separate study from the same group found, however, MIA was one of the longest waits for international travelers passing through immigration and customs during the holiday season. While the average wait time during that period last year was around 23 minutes, passengers had to wait just over half an hour at MIA. The airport had the highest maximum wait time for international arriving passengers at almost 75 minutes. American citizens waited about half as long as non-citizens.

One reason could be simply volume, as MIA also ranked as the second busiest for international travel during this period.

The average immigration and customs wait time at FLL was about 20 minutes and just six minutes at PBI.

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.
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