CORONAVIRUS

Eastern Iowa Airport sees 97 percent drop in enplaned passengers in April

Recovery could take years, not months: director

A social distancing floor sticker is placed leading to the TSA security checkpoint at Eastern Iowa Airport. (Jim Slosiar
A social distancing floor sticker is placed leading to the TSA security checkpoint at Eastern Iowa Airport. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Eastern Iowa Airport was hit with a 97 percent drop in passengers in April as the coronavirus has would-be flyers thinking twice before booking flights.

“For a lot of industries, but aviation in particular, it’s unprecedented times,” Airport Director Marty Lenss said Wednesday. “There is no other comparison.”

Passenger totals dropped from 48,626 in April 2019 to 1,483 in April of this year, or about 49 passengers boarding each day.

Frontier Airlines, for example, had only 24 passengers at the Cedar Rapids airport in all of April. There were more passengers on Frontier Airlines — the airline with the smallest footprint at Eastern Iowa Airport — in April 2019 than total passengers on all airlines carried in April 2020.

The massive fall in passenger numbers erased gains from busy a January and February. Passengers are down 25.5 percent through the first four months of 2020.

“We had airlines investing in us going into this,” Lenss said.

Lenns said the airport went from only having 200 parking spaces available in February — with the airport “scrambling to find more parking stalls because we were nearing capacity” — to having about 250 cars in the entire lot.

A good day at the gift shop now, Lenss said, is $200 in sales instead of thousands of dollars in sales.

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Airlines still have to operate a minimum amount of flights to receive government assistance through the CARES Act. But even with those requirements, the airport saw a 72.8 percent fall in passenger flight arrivals.

Delta Air Lines, for example, had 250 landings in April 2019 contrasted with 55 landings in April 2020.

That drop is despite myriad safety measures by the airport and airlines.

Eastern Iowa Airport is installing protective shields at information counters and stickers on the floor marking six feet of distance in lines.

Delta is capping its flight capacity at 60 percent and not using any middle seats.

But the good news is elsewhere at the airport. Cargo shipments have increased by 7.5 percent compared to April 2019, as many people sheltering at home turn to online shopping through Amazon.com and other retailers.

“That continues to be a bright spot for the airport, pre-COVID and of course post-COVID,” Lenss said.

But that’s not enough to overcome the loss in passengers. Lenss noted the lost revenue is between $1.5 million and $1.7 million each month.

‘Conservative’ planning

Eastern Iowa Airport is set to finish the third phase of a four-part renovation soon, with a Java House coffee kiosk opening in mid-June. The fourth phase has been postponed indefinitely, Lenss said.

The airport commission’s cautious spending strategy has limited the financial damage from the pandemic, though.

“We’ve been very conservative in our planning,” Lenss said. The aviation travel industry “ebbs and flows with the economy.”

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The renovation was set up so that construction could stop at the end of any phase while still having a fully functioning airport. Lenss said the airport also has not incurred any debt, allowing for more financial flexibility.

To save money, the airport temporarily has closed parts of the terminal to save on utilities and cleaning costs. Part-time employees have worked reduced hours, and the airport is having its staff take care of lawn mowing instead of contracting that work.

“We are asking a lot our of our teams,” Lenss said. “Folks are really rising to the challenge.”

Nationwide

Passenger traffic has dropped dramatically across the country since the start of the global pandemic. In some cases, airlines are operating flights with only one passenger to comply with the CARES Act. Delta has needed to issue more than $1.5 billion in refunds nationwide since January, according an email to upcoming travelers.

When airlines do come back, fleets are expected to be smaller than before the pandemic.

“It puts more pressure on communities to have a strong economy,” Lenss said. “Overall in the industry, it’s going to be smaller. There’s no doubt about that. So each and every community out there is going to be competing for fewer (airline) seats.”

But there’s optimism across the industry though as passenger demand gradually increases. Delta will add flights in June, the airline announced Monday.

Locally, Eastern Iowa Airport has seen a recent increase in passenger traffic again — more than twice as much as in April.

“There’s some reason to be optimistic,” Lenns said. “We’ve hit the bottom of the drop-off and we’re starting to now see an uptick in passengers. ... The trendline is moving in the right direction.”

it’s still a far cry from a usual, pandemic-free May. Lenss sees the recovery as taking “several years,” not months to return to the passenger numbers the airport saw in 2019.

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“There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Lenss said. “We have a long way to go.”

l Comments: john.steppe@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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All donations are tax-deductible.