Passenger travel at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport tumbled 62% last year as pandemic lockdowns kept businesses and leisure travelers home.

The data, released Friday by the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), reflected the largest drop in air travel in aviation history and tracks with similar losses at other U.S. airports and airlines.

Nearly 15 million people passed through the MSP airport in 2020 after setting records the prior year with nearly 40 million travelers.

Although the holidays brought some of the busiest travel days during the pandemic, it was still far below normal, Brian Ryks, the MAC's chief executive, said in a statement.

But the true impact of the still-raging coronavirus likely was far worse than the report shows. MSP was on another record pace through early March, according to the MAC. That's when global travel took a precipitous drop over efforts to halt the spread of illness.

"Sixty-two percent almost makes it look better than it was," said Kyle Potter, the Minnesota-based editor of the Thrifty Traveler website. "If you took the nine months of the pandemic and stretch it out over that year, we're probably talking a 70 to 75% drop."

Before the pandemic, MSP had 10 consecutive years of total passenger growth. The airport commission's Ryks said it will take years to recover from the drop.

With the COVID-19 vaccination programs underway, he hopes leisure travel will pick up in the last half of this year. Business and international travel will be slower to recover.

But with mutating strains of the coronavirus adding new fears, additional travel restrictions and potential testing requirements could forestall progress.

"This is going to get worse," Potter said. "It's going to get harder to travel before it gets better."

There were two pieces of upbeat data in Friday's report. Flights for airfreight rose 4% at MSP last year, and military flights were up 32%.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

Twitter: @JackieCrosby