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Air Travel is Taking Off as Passengers Return

Published on 13 April 2021

This time last year, when governments began to impose stay-at-home orders, airports became ghost towns, reporting record low bookings of passenger and business flights. International travel plummeted as restrictions were put in place and officials warned that travel was one way that COVID-19 spread.

The “buzz” is back at Harrisburg International Airport as passenger travel is rebounding from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, according to spokesman Scott Miller.

“Last year, no one was here,” Miller said. “There was no noise.”

The last week of March was one of the busiest travel weeks at most airports since the pandemic, Miller said.

“It’s something we haven’t had in a while,” he said. “It was very reassuring. We’re starting to see family reunions again. There’s more energy.”

The most travelers reported out of HIA in 2020 was on Feb. 17, with 15,529. When it was determined there was a global pandemic, the number of travelers dropped to 505 on March 30, 2020. Cargo flights brought in the most revenue to HIA last year, with December being the best month, Miller said.

“January and February were 8 percent above last year,” he said. “We’re still trending ahead of where we were a year ago. We’re expecting to see the same numbers going forward as the new normal because the demand for shipments and online purchases, e-commerce, that’s not going away.”

Airlines stretched funds received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to stay afloat. But now that vaccines are being administered, and stimulus dollars paid, passengers are returning to airports.

“We’ve had seven consecutive weeks of weekly traffic growth, which is good,” Miller said, noting that by Easter “we should be about 50 percent of where we were in 2019, which was the record year for travel in the nation as well as here in Harrisburg. There are a lot of questions that remain in terms of what April, May, June, and the summer months are going to look like moving forward.”

Many airlines are successfully booking more trips to southern locations such as Texas, Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, Miller said. But, without business travel back to what it was in 2019 and international travel slowly trickling back, the financial pinch will continue to be an ever-present concern.

“Some business travel is coming back, but I don’t think a lot of major corporations are out there with most of their flyers like they had before,” he said. “We hope they come back. The industry needs it to come back, but that’s going to take some time yet.”

There are many unknowns about business travel now that a majority of corporations have their employees working from home, Miller said. He said everyone is unsure of what the future looks like now that other options have been implemented and have worked throughout the pandemic.

“So if you had 100 people flying a day in your business and you have four or five now, what’s the new normal look like in 2021-2022?” Miller said. “Is that 30, is that 70? Nobody knows yet. And, that’s the big wild card moving forward. What happens when business travel comes back because leisure travel is strong right now and we expect that to continue until Labor Day.”

The fourth quarter of 2021 is a mystery, Miller said.

“Predicting the future, these vaccines — do they last three months, six months, or longer?” he asked. “We don’t know what the fourth quarter is going to look like. I think travel is going to be very strong this summer through Labor Day. October is generally a very strong month. Next winter, are people going to be concerned again? Will we have herd immunity? I don’t know.”

Airlines and airports are pushing for the federal government to ease more restrictions that allow for more passengers on board and more flights to take to the skies.

Pennsylvania’s largest airport — Philadelphia International Airport — is seeing many of the same trends as HIA, according to the airport’s Director of Communications Florence Brown.

The good news is, for the month of March 2021, Philadelphia is only down about 31 percent compared to two years ago in March 2019, Brown said.

“Interestingly, March 2020 and March 2021 passenger volume numbers look very similar — around 465,000 outbound passengers processed as of March 28,” she said. “Florida, the Caribbean, and Mexico continue to perform well, with themes of ‘sun and sand’ being popular destinations.”

And, while people have a desire to get away, Brown said many of the flights booked are to visit family and friends.

“International and business travel continues to be the hardest hit segments of Philadelphia’s passenger categories,” Brown said. “Flights to Dublin and London resumed on March 27 — our first trans- Atlantic service since last year.”

Philadelphia’s airport is projecting a three- to five-year recovery to 2019 passenger volume levels and revenues, Brown said.

“While working toward recovery, the airport must tighten its operational expenses and look for opportunities to innovate,” she said. “Opportunities include cleaning robots, customer service kiosks, curb-to-gate biometrics, restroom renovation program, HVAC improvements, investments in cargo infrastructure, and expanding our network map to capture lost and new international destinations.”

Traffic also has picked up at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The airport ended March with news that its long-term parking is back as of April 1.

“As passenger traffic continues to grow, we are monitoring conditions and working to meet customer demand,” said Ricky Smith, executive director of BWI Marshall Airport. “Safe and reliable travel remains our highest priorities. We continue to work with our parking management contractor to ensure a positive travel experience for our passengers.”

The 22nd busiest airport in the country reported its busiest passenger traffic day since the start of Maryland’s COVID-19 state of emergency – implemented in March 2020 – on March 26 with 22,698 departing passengers. Several other days in March also were among the busiest in the past year.

According to airport officials, “BWI Marshal Airport originally planned a gradual reopening of parking facilities starting July 1. Growing passenger traffic in recent weeks has prompted the airport to accelerate the reopening of the Long Term A lot. The airport’s Long Term B lot, express parking and valet service will remain temporarily closed at this time.”

Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said that “as Maryland continues its COVID-19 recovery, the increased numbers at BWI Marshall reflect air travelers’ confidence that our workers and our airport partners are providing a clean, healthy environment and the region’s most convenient and efficient service

“With passengers returning in greater numbers, it’s crucial that everyone continue the practices that will aid Maryland’s recovery, including use of face coverings, maintaining social distance, and taking other precautions that protect the health of ourselves and others,”

Slater said.

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