CORONAVIRUS

At The Eastern Iowa Airport, low passenger traffic, regional airline closures take toll

When it came to passenger traffic, The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids was flying high through the first half of March.

The airport had seen a 25 percent traffic increase across January and February, compared with those same two months in 2019 — from 181,144 to 226,166 monthly total passengers — and available seats were up 20 percent in March, too, airport Director Marty Lenss said.

Lenss said concerns about COVID-19 began picking up in the aviation industry around early February, as legacy airline carriers began experiencing a “softening” of international travel.

But it wasn’t until the last two weeks of March, after schools had taken their spring break, when “the bottom fell out.”

Now, Lenss said, passenger cancellations are far outpacing bookings, and several flights have had more “no-shows” of ticketed passengers — those who rescheduled or canceled — than actual passengers.

The Transportation Security Administration said on April 7 officers screened 97,130 travelers — that’s down 95 percent from 2.1 million travelers that same weekday one year ago, and less than half the number two weeks ago.

The Cedar Rapids airport still expects to see 19 flights each week, or just under three a day on average, under federal minimum service requirements in the CARES Act. An aviation consultant’s report shows this translates to 8,219 departing seats a week — filled or vacant.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Even still, because of the passenger shortage, airlines have canceled what Lenss estimated as 50 percent to 60 percent of flights scheduled to depart most days.

Statewide, Iowa’s commercial airports this month have lost more than 50 percent of weekly departing seats, or more than 22,000 of the 54,000 departing seats from April 2019, the consultant’s report shows.

Difficulties among regional airlines have not helped matters.

These smaller carriers, including independent airlines and those operating as affiliates under larger companies, provide approximately 80 percent of The Eastern Iowa Airport’s departures and nearly 76 percent of Iowa’s passenger service, according to a 2018 report from Washington, D.C.-based Regional Airline Association.

Regional carriers also account for 60 percent of departures at Des Moines International Airport, and all service at the state’s other smaller commercial airports — in Burlington, Dubuque, Fort Dodge, Mason City, Sioux City and Waterloo.

Trans States Holdings of Bridgeton, Mo., on April 1 shut down regional carrier Trans States Airlines, which operated United Airlines flights, accelerating the carrier’s planned closure from the end of 2020 because of COVID-19’s “unforeseen impact.”

The parent company on April 7 also closed its Minneapolis-based Compass Airlines, which flew regionally for American Airlines and Delta.

In a March 21 letter to congressional leaders, representatives from the association and 18 such carriers said that in communities served exclusively by regional airlines, air service drives $134 billion in annual economic activity, supporting 1 million jobs and $36 billion in wages and commensurate tax revenues in local economies.

“Regional airlines need help ensuring this unprecedented and devastating crisis does not force the furlough of thousands of workers, which would not only devastate our 70,000 employees, but would permanently alter the landscape of small community air service,” the representatives wrote.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

As is, Lenss said The Eastern Iowa Airport is losing approximately $1.5 million to $1.7 million in revenue each month, including from a drop in parking lot concessions, landing fees, car rentals, restaurant and gift shop sales.

“Air service and passenger traffic represent over 80 percent of the airport’s budget, so quite honestly, we’re watching that on a weekly basis and adjusting our revenue forecast going forward,” he said.

As a cost-cutting measure, Lenss said the airport indefinitely has delayed just under $11 million in construction, including the design for Phase 4 of its terminal modernization project and a remote economy parking lot.

Other projects are continuing, however. Those include a $10.2 million cargo facility for United Parcel Service, and a $20 million taxiway circulation project Lenss said is scheduled for bidding this summer, making use of federal CARES Act funds.

Lenss said airlines likely will craft flight schedules more reflective of the pandemic’s travel slowdown around the end of April or early May.

“We’ll have to wait and see how the industry bounces back,” he said. “We are hearing that there will be a new normal and some of the carriers may be operating much smaller than what they were going into the COVID-19 crisis.”

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.