CORONAVIRUS

Eastern Iowa Airport sees 53% drop in passengers in 2020, fewest in at least 25 years

Airport turns to health screening, cost-cutting to persevere through pandemic

A sign denoting the day's departures is seen near the airline ticket counters at The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapid
A sign denoting the day's departures is seen near the airline ticket counters at The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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The Eastern Iowa Airport saw the fewest total passengers in 2020 in at least 25 years as coronavirus wreaked havoc on the commercial aerospace industry.

The 615,935 passengers marked a 53 percent drop from 2019 levels and broke a streak of six years with at least 1 million passengers.

The lowest passenger total before 2020 in the airport’s digital records, which go back to 1996, was 829,760 in 1996.

“Even in past economic recessions and 9/11, we didn’t see this long and dramatic drop in passengers,” airport Director Marty Lenss told The Gazette.

The Eastern Iowa Airport is far from the only airport facing these challenges. Des Moines International Airport had its fewest total passengers in 2020 since 1984, according to the Des Moines Register.

Nationwide, only 324 million passengers passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints in 2020, compared with 824 million in 2019, according to the TSA.

Cargo shipping has been a “bright spot” for The Eastern Iowa Airport, Lenss said. It was up 5.3 percent from 2019.

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The airport is equipped for future growth with the opening of the west cargo apron in the spring, which will give UPS eight times more space than in the previous facility.

“There is no firm commitment that they’ll add service or add employment, but there’s a lot of space for that to occur going forward,” Lenss said.

But that still makes up a small portion of the airport’s revenue. About 82 percent of airport revenue is tied to commercial air traffic, Lenss said, making it a “huge component” of the airport’s financial success. That includes airline rent, concessions and rental car revenue.

That’s not coming back quickly, either.

It may take four years for passenger numbers to rebound

A report from the Regional Airline Association earlier this month indicated regional airline departures remain “significantly depressed,” affecting small and large airports alike. In 2019, 85 percent of The Eastern Iowa Airport’s departures came from regional airlines, according to the airline association’s most recent annual report.

Lenss is preparing for a four-year recovery before passenger numbers return to 2019 levels.

“We hope we’re wrong,” Lenss said. “We certainly hope it bounces back much quicker than that.”

The other 18 percent of airport revenue comes from cargo, general aviation and property management.

To offset revenue losses, the airport has a four-year plan to spread out the $22.8 million it received in early 2020 from the national coronavirus relief bill known as the CARES Act — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Lenss anticipates receiving a second wave of stimulus from the most recent coronavirus aid bill passed in December. The Consolidated Appropriations Act included $1 billion in airport funding.

The Eastern Iowa Airport allocated some of the CARES Act funding to its Travel Well health screening program, which will begin Jan. 25.

Wage freeze and projects on hold, but no layoffs

Major projects, including the fourth phase of the terminal renovation project, have been on hold indefinitely. All airport employees have been under a wage freeze as well.

While the airport has not furloughed or laid off any employees, Lenss has waited longer to fill vacant positions.

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“We are really taking a much more conservative approach to the budget and not taking anything for granted,” Lenss said. “We don’t want to look back and think we left something on the table that could have helped us recover just a little bit quicker.”

That same conservative approach applies to adding routes, too. Lenss didn’t rule out new routes, but the focus is on keeping Cedar Rapids’ 14 nonstop routes. All but one — Delta Air Lines’ nonstop service to Atlanta — have been operational during the pandemic.

“Our real focus is to maintain what we have, do everything we can to get the passenger confidence up and begin that growth,” Lenss said.

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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