Passenger counts at the three Port Authority of New York and New Jersey airports were higher in November than in November 2019, marking the first month they beat a pre-pandemic comparison.

Air travel was up 2% when compared to the same time period in 2019, as Newark Liberty International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, and LaGuardia Airport collectively handled 11 million passengers, the Port Authority said in a press release.

The Port Authority said demand for air travel in November was driven primarily by domestic travelers during Thanksgiving, when 8% more holiday passengers flew to U.S. destinations compared to Thanksgiving 2019.

“It’s a stark contrast to the nadir of the pandemic in 2020,” the Port Authority said in a news release. “The evident return to air travel in the bistate region caps a year of accomplishments and openings for the Port Authority’s redevelopment projects at its three major regional airports.”

Air travel rates dropped 96% nationwide at the height of the pandemic and cost the Port Authority an estimated $3 billion in lost revenue. 

However, diversified streams of revenue from other transportation options, as well as rent payments, kept the Port Authority insulated from the worst of the pandemic’s effects, said Seth Lehman, lead Port Authority analyst for Fitch Ratings, which assigned its AA-minus rating to the Port Authority’s $400 million revenue bond deal in December.

The transportation agency charged ahead during the pandemic with billions in capital plans to renovate airport terminals, tarmacs, and other associated infrastructure in line with a 2016-2027 capital plan.

The fact that November’s flight volumes surpassed pre-pandemic numbers “demonstrates that our historic investment in the region’s airports are critically important,” Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton said in the Dec. 22 news release.

Port Authority expects those passenger numbers to continue climbing, reaching 143 million passengers by the end of 2023, 3 million more than seen in 2018, and in its recently passed 2023 budget committed the largest slice of its $2.9 billion capital spending allotment to aviation. 

Cotton also announced the agency’s newest project on tap for 2023 is opening a bidding process to replace the Newark Airtrain system, which ferries 10 million passengers a year to and from the airport’s terminals, and is a critical component of the operation that’s “reaching the end of its useful life,” Cotton said in a press release.

“A new rail link will enhance the travel experience with seamless connections and quick access to the airport, as well as the new parking garage and consolidated rental car facility,” he said.

The project is estimated to cost $2 billion and comes on top of an ongoing, $2.9 billion, 33-gate terminal renovation of the airport and an associated parking complex.

JFK will also receive funds from the new budget to finish a $9.5 billion terminal remodeling, which will renovate 2.4 million square feet of space and add 23 gates to the airport.

It is expected to be the first of three terminals remodeled at the airport via a public-private partnership between the authority and Vantage Airport Group, the aviation design firm responsible for the renovation of LaGuardia’s Terminal B which opened in 2021.

As it pursues its ten-year capital plan, the Port Authority expects to spend over $30 billion through a mix of private debt, pay-go capital, and a $13.4 billion mix of long- and short-term consolidated bonds.

During the pandemic, depressed revenues, followed by inflation, weighed on the transportation agency’s bottom line, said Lehman. Now, as transportation volume increases across the board, “their financial profile is starting to see much more stability,” he said. 

“Things are getting back to normal in many of their operating segments,” he said, adding that “a lot of private money has been deployed” in the Port Authority’s airports, something that helps decrease risk while opening up wide avenues for funding.

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