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COVID-19 in pictures: Photographer captures air travel’s contrast in 2020, 2021

Aviation photographer Ryan Patterson says many of the pictures he took in the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic are still too painful to look at — and hopes to never snap another image like them again. 

But he knows he captured history.

The 22-year-old George Washington University student has built a side hustle traveling the world to take aerial pictures of airplanes and sell the prints

But in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began and the global lockdown grounded many jetliners, it became his personal mission to document what would hopefully be a once-in-a-lifetime sight.

RELATED: International travelers flock to US on 1st day of eased COVID-19 restrictions

Keeping his home base in Washington, D.C., Patterson traveled to different airports around the country to take pictures of numerous planes, parked and stored. His photographs depict dozens of unused planes tucked away at airplane boneyards, sites usually reserved for retired jetliners. He also captured many vacant tarmacs at terminals coast to coast including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Miami and Kansas City.

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Parked planes at Roswell International Air Center in September 2020. (Credit: Ryan Patterson)

"I started taking pictures when people started struggling to see COVID," he told FOX Television Stations. "COVID is obviously something you can’t see and I felt like in aviation, you could see COVID."

"I just wanted to bring to light what was happening," he continued. 

But he said the most difficult shoot was in Roswell, New Mexico, where he saw dozens of planes parked. It was around the same time airline workers were furloughed due to the global lockdown.

"I was one of the only people to have gone there and seen the actual devastation, seen the planes on the ground," he said. 

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Kansas City International Airport May 2020 (Credit: Ryan Patterson)

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"It was hard to look at — that’s for sure," he added.

But as air travel rebounded, Patterson got the idea to head back to some of those same airports and do side-by-side comparisons of air travel in 2020 and air travel in 2021.

For example, he took an aerial picture of the United terminal at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. A usually busy terminal looked largely deserted in December 2020. He returned and took another aerial picture of the same terminal showing more normal activity in September 2021. 

"Taken within the same hour, 10 months apart," he posted on Instagram. "It feels like we are finally starting to come to the light at the end of the very long tunnel."

"It was a little bit of a full-circle moment," he said. "I guess it kind of marked the end, for me, of the hardest part."

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American and United Airlines stored hundreds of planes in Roswell New Mexico during the pandemic in September 2020. (Credit: Ryan Patterson)

Airline experts may agree with Patterson after seeing a recent rebound in air travel, filling flights close to pre-pandemic levels.

Flight bookings have surged for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, topping pre-pandemic 2019 bookings by 3.2%, according to the Adobe Digital Economy Index. Still, travel recovery faces a renewed threat as the number of new cases of COVID-19 continues to rise. The seven-day rolling average of new U.S. infections is around 80,000 a day, up 26% from three weeks ago.

RELATED: COVID-19 vaccine holdouts could impact airline travel heading into holiday season

The U.S. fully reopened to many vaccinated international travelers earlier this month, allowing families and friends to reunite for the first time since the coronavirus emerged and offering a boost to the travel industry decimated by the pandemic. The restrictions closed the U.S. to millions of people for 20 months.

Delta Air Lines said it has seen a 450% increase in international point-of-sale bookings versus six weeks prior to the announcement of the U.S. welcoming vaccinated foreigners. 

"This is the start of a new era for travel and for many people around the world who have not been able to see loved ones for almost two years," said Ed Bastian, Delta’s CEO.

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Airplanes parked at Southern California Logistics Airport in July 2020. (Credit: Ryan Patterson)

Airline officials say they haven’t seen bookings suffer because of the delta variant, although some have said it could delay the return of business travel, which airlines were hoping would gain speed this fall.

RELATED: Delta Air Lines says international flight bookings have surged 450% amid US reopening

Meanwhile, Patterson said there has been some interest from companies to publish his "Stored Airplanes Project" collection, but he wants to be sensitive to airline workers impacted by the pandemic and the 2020 lockdown. 

"I was conscious not be posting lined-up, stored airplanes when people were struggling when people were furloughed," he said. "Just a hard picture to stomach. I didn’t want it to be causing pain."

"In a few years, these photos will have a little bit of a different perspective on them," he said. 

FOX Business and the Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.