Chattanooga Airport continues to build back air traffic that disappeared during the pandemic with passenger boardings up nearly 15% last year over 2021, but the results still lag pre-coronavirus numbers.
Also, if flights during the Christmas holiday period seemed crowded in Chattanooga, that's because they were. Delta Air Lines, historically the busiest carrier in the city, filled 88.4% of its available seats this past month at the airport, up from 81.7% in December 2021, figures show.
The airport's final 2022 boardings came in at 432,312 passengers, according to Lovell Field. While up sharply, the level is still 21.9% behind the all-time annual mark of 554,050 boardings in 2019 in Chattanooga.
Jim Hall, the Airport Authority's chairman, said by phone that he's very pleased with 2022 and that the airport is "headed back to a better normal."
He said the airport could return to pre-pandemic boardings faster if the airlines put more seats into the market. Airlines are dealing with pilot shortages -- many retired during the pandemic -- along with other personnel issues, and that has affected service nationally, Hall said.
"There's a lack of trained people," Hall said. "Everybody wants to have a trained pilot in the cockpit. That takes time when they have such an adjustment."
Terry Hart, the airport's chief executive, said in a statement that while the pandemic had an industry effect, he's confident Lovell Field will return to 2019 levels as seat capacity increases from the airlines.
At the same time, if all flight operations are included with commercial service, such as general aviation, military and Weststar Aviation's maintenance center business, the airport set a record, he said.
Operations of 88,746 in 2022 were up 7% over the prior year, Hart said. That compares to 56,430 operations in 2009, up 57%, he said.
Meanwhile, the airlines serving Chattanooga were running mostly full flights last year. In December, for example, the airlines averaged loads of 86.1% on flights in and out of Chattanooga versus 83.9% a year earlier, according to the airport.
While helping the carrier's bottom lines, not all passengers are on board with the heavily filled flights.
Brent Corbin, of Jacksonville, Florida, who arrived by plane in Chattanooga on Tuesday, said in an interview at the airport that nobody prefers sitting in a middle seat.
"I'd like a little bit more room," he said. In addition, travelers are paying baggage costs on some airlines of $30, $40 or $100, Corbin said. "That's a big amount."
Flier Jamain Madry, also of Jacksonville, said in an interview that his flight was full coming into Chattanooga on Tuesday, but he didn't mind.
"As long as they got to my destination on time," he said.
Hall said he believes Chattanooga Airport's timing is right for the planned opening of its expanded passenger terminal in 2024 with the airlines solving some of their staffing and equipment issues.
"We can look forward to the airport being in a prime position to get more flights," he said.
Last summer, the airport launched the expansion that will add new gates to board planes, enlarge the security checkpoint and bolster amenities for travelers.
"People will be surprised at the lift it will have," Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said at the time, noting that the work also will boost the city's efforts to recruit more business.
The expansion, which will add 26,000 square feet and renovate 36,000 square feet, is the largest in more than 30 years by size. The $28 million price tag makes the project the largest expansion ever to the terminal in terms of dollars, Hart said.