116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Eastern Iowa Airport had a bit of a vacation this summer from the COVID-19-induced turmoil in the aviation industry.
The national mask mandate in airports remained in effect, enhanced cleaning procedures continued and the physical structure still stood from the mandatory health screenings that ended July 1.
But Iowa travelers flocked to Wright Brothers Boulevard in numbers nearing the summer of 2019.
In July 2021, Cedar Rapids’ enplaned passenger total was only 9 percent below the July 2019 numbers and almost three times higher than July 2020.
The airport similarly was down 19 percent in June 2021 compared to June 2019 — but had almost four times as many passengers than June 2020.
Cedar Rapids is far from the only airport to see a summer uptick in passengers. Des Moines, for example, had just 10 percent fewer enplaned passengers in July 2021 than in July 2019.
But Eastern Iowa Airport’s recovery has outpaced national averages.
The Transportation and Security Administration screened about 23 percent fewer passengers in June and July this year than in 2019, according to a Gazette analysis of TSA data.
Marty Lenss, Eastern Iowa Airport director, attributed the summer success to the Corridor’s economic resiliency.
“Those vacation dollars are discretionary dollars,” Lenss said, “so people need to feel comfortable and confident about their employment status during a pandemic.”
There’s a catch to the aviation recovery, though, according to Robert Mann, a New York-based airline consultant.
“The problem is it's all leisure travel,” Mann said in an interview with The Gazette. “And it's all fares that are below 2019 levels.”
The demand that spiked in the summer is not expected to stay at 2019 levels, either.
As children return to school and business travel lags amid the pandemic, Cedar Rapids and airports across the country anticipate a much different September and October than June and July.
“We expect September and October to dip again,” Lenss said.
“We have started to see some business traffic back, but certainly nowhere near the 2019 levels.”
Mann pointed out traffic usually drops across the country a week after Labor Day. Without business travel coming back yet, that’ll be a “fairly steep drop-off,” he told The Gazette.
“The real question is, ‘How do airlines keep themselves busy between a week after Labor Day and the Thanksgiving week?’”
The emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 adds to the challenges facing airports.
Eastern Iowa Airport is expecting a “pretty robust” November and December, Lenss said, in spite of the rise of the Delta variant. Travelers have been booking ahead for next spring break, too.
“We’re not seeing the flight cancellations that we saw early in the pandemic, so that’s good,” Lenss said.
The return of holiday travel will come as the airport adds nonstop service in November to Orlando International Airport on Frontier Airlines and Sarasota Bradenton International Airport on Allegiant Air.
So far, Frontier and Allegiant are “very pleased” with how many people are booking flights on the new route, Lenss said.
That’s especially important considering airlines’ current route strategy. Mann compared it to how former hockey star Wayne Gretzky “wasn’t skating where the puck was,” instead “skating (to) where the puck would be.”
“You have the airlines essentially doing Wayne Gretzky-style scheduling,” Mann said, to figure out “where the demand will be.”
If discount airlines don’t see enough new bookings on a new route, they’ll quickly move that service to other airports, Mann said.
“Some of them have very, very short fuses,” Mann said. “Frontier, for example, I think has the shortest fuse in the industry. If they don't see it immediately respond, they just pull it and do something else.”
Mann said Allegiant, on the other hand, is relatively patient because of its investment in its destinations that go beyond air service, such as hotels or other properties.
“It's kind of a travel-management company that happens to run an airline,” Mann said.
Lenss, while hopeful for the holiday travel season and beyond, is guarding against getting too optimistic.
“Seats and schedules 30 days out are very fluid,” Lenss said.
“We’re seeing a lot of changes in the October schedule as we speak.”
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