This summer is on track to be the busiest ever at the Portland International Jetport as travelers return to the skies during the peak of Maine’s summer tourism season despite the lingering coronavirus pandemic.

The number of airplane seats for sale into and out of Portland broke records in July and August, according to jetport authorities. Nearly 292,000 seats were available for purchase this month and about 300,000 are available for August, slightly above the record for that month set in 2018.

“It is brilliant news – we are very pleased by the … recovery for Maine and leisure traffic to the state,” airport Director Paul Bradbury said.

Just because the seats are available does not mean they all will be sold, but the huge surge in capacity indicates strong demand for leisure travel. Likely contributors to the increased availability include recently added airline routes to and from Portland, as well as the state’s perennial appeal to tourists.

It also doesn’t mean more planes are coming. Larger jets mean there will be about 220 fewer flights in August than in the same month of 2018 and 1,500 fewer than in 1997, when the jetport hit a record for the number of flights, Bradbury said.

The surge in air travel through Maine’s largest airport is a stunning reversal from just a few months ago, when passenger volumes were half what they were in 2019 before the pandemic grounded routine air travel.

Passenger volumes initially recovered slowly from the effects of the pandemic but have since picked up as case counts have eased in Maine and elsewhere.

Just 5,460 passengers traveled through Portland in May 2020, in the early days of the first coronavirus wave. The peak air travel month for the state last year was August, when 80,600 passengers transited Portland, only a third of the number coming through in the same month a year before.

Paul David of Belgrade Lakes hugs his grandchildren, Claire Cotter, 11, and James Cotter, 8, of Louisiana, after they arrived Wednesday at the Portland International Jetport. Just a few months ago, the airport’s passenger volumes were half what they were in 2019, before the pandemic. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Traffic grew slowly in the first three months of 2021, then ramped up as Maine’s vaccination rate rose to become one of the highest in the country and the state dropped virus precautions and eliminated travel restrictions for all U.S. residents in May. The number of airline boardings in June was the third-highest on record for the jetport.

“We are almost back to 2019 levels on a seven-day rolling average,” Bradbury said.

There have been spikes, on Fourth of July weekend for example, but passenger numbers overall are trending upward, he said.

“The month of July has been a really steep slope to what is very close to 2019 numbers and starting to exceed those,” Bradbury said.

Booming air travel into Maine mirrors traffic on state roads and highways. The vast majority of tourists drive personal vehicles to visit the state, given it is within driving distance of major metropolitan areas in the Northeast.

Traffic on state roads last week was about on par with the same time in 2019 and was 18 percent higher than last year, according to a weekly analysis produced by Maine Department of Transportation.

George Sweetman and Lois Girvan of Labelle, Florida, retrieve their luggage at the Portland International Jetport on Wednesday. The vast majority of tourists drive to visit Maine. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

But traffic in some tourist areas was much higher, including State Route 27 in Boothbay and State Route 3 on Mount Desert Island, both of which surpassed 2019 levels.

What’s happening at the jetport also matches national trends. Domestic passenger volumes recovered sharply over the spring, from less than half the pre-pandemic numbers in April to just 18 percent below them in June, according to Airlines for America, an industry group.

In the same month, Maine was the only New England state where nearly the same number of passengers went through security screening compared with 2019. The state was just 6 percent below that year, compared with between 45 percent and 22 percent below in other New England states, according to Airlines for America.

Some air travel to Maine is being driven by new nonstop, seasonal routes to Portland that have opened in recent years from cities such as Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth, as Maine and its largest city have become more widely recognized as tourist destinations.

Even more nonstop flights were added this spring, as airlines rebalanced their fleets to compensate for depleted business travel with a booming leisure market. This spring, United Airlines added nonstop flights from six cities in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic, including Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and daily flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul from Delta.

“Our airline partners are looking at the overall map, they know it is all about leisure travel this summer, (and) they are looking at markets that are best placed in that regard,” Bradbury said. “What’s happening now is that hyper-leisure is compensating for still-regressed business travel – it is eclipsing business travel.”

Debora Wilson of Belfast hugs her grandson Duke Williams, 5, of Atlanta, after he arrived with his family at the Portland International Jetport on Wednesday. Some air travel to Maine is being driven by new nonstop, seasonal routes to Portland from cities such as Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Despite the new routes, destinations with the most seats available in June were longstanding routes from the jetport: Baltimore, New York City and Washington, D.C.

The surge in air travel through Portland is unlikely to last, Bradbury said. September and October are typically busy months for travel during the “shoulder” season, but fewer passengers fly out of the airport in late autumn and winter.

“When we get out of leisure season, we will dip back below 2019 numbers for late fall,” Bradbury said. “I tend to think things will run down as we depend more on business travel, especially in the first quarter (of 2022).”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.