Airport traffic starting virus recovery
Airports took a major hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but passenger
counts are beginning to tick upwards as the public begins to get more
As COVID-19-inspired restrictions are being lifted, passenger numbers are slowly
rising at Pensacola International Airport.
“Slow is the operative word,” said Dan Flynn, airport director.
The progress, however slow, is still encouraging. At its lowest point, the airport was
handling 93-94 percent less traffic than the same period a year earlier. “This time of
year, we can process 3,300 to 4,000 passengers per day. Several weeks ago, we
had only about 200 per day,” Flynn said in late May.
Passenger numbers for Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport were dismal
as well, according to Executive Director Parker McClellan. At a recent airport
authority board meeting, McClellan reported only 6,000 passengers for the month of
April, compared with 114,000 for April 2019.
As Florida beaches, restaurants, hotels and vacation rentals have reopened, the
numbers are inching up at the Pensacola airport.
“Now we’re starting to see a turnaround in the numbers,” Flynn said. “We never
thought we’d be thrilled to see 800 to 900 passengers on any given day.”
Celebrating such baby steps is the new normal for airports throughout the Gulf
“We’re on conference calls with other airports in the State of Florida,” Flynn said,
noting that Northwest Florida airports are in a better position to rebound early
because their traffic isn’t tied to cruise ships and theme parks, their beaches have
reopened, and military traffic on commercial aircraft is expected to resume soon.
Some travel restrictions remained in place as others were easing. Gov. Ron
DeSantis issued an executive order March 24 requiring airport travelers arriving from
COVID-19 hot-spot areas to isolate or quarantine for 14 days. As of late May, the
restrictions covered all travelers (except for military, emergency, health care and
infrastructure workers) arriving by air or by car from Louisiana, Connecticut, New
Jersey and New York.
International travel took a hit on March 31 when the U.S. Department of State
issued an unprecedented “Level 4: Do Not Travel” global health advisory, urging
citizens to a avoid all international travel due to COVID-19. Specific U.S. government
restrictions ban visitors who have been in certain affected countries within the
previous 14 days.
Not all the news from the government was bad. The CARES Act Airport Grants
Program infused much-needed dollars into depleted revenue streams. Pensacola
International Airport received a little more than $11 million, money Flynn said will be
spent on airport operations and maintenance over the next two to three years and, it
is hoped, allow the facility to avoid raising landing and terminal fees to replace lost
As travelers begin to pack their bags and buy tickets again, Flynn and his
counterparts at other Gulf Coast airports are gearing back up for the airline industry’
s eventual recovery. Flynn said Pensacola International Airport is coordinating with
Florida state officials and its partners – airlines, concessionaires, car rental
companies and the like – “to present a united front to show that the health and
wellbeing of employees and patrons are of utmost importance.”
Enhanced cleaning and social distancing, installing acrylic shields at counters and
requiring employees to wear masks are all part of the effort “to get that across to
everybody that we are very concerned.”
To drive that point home, the Pensacola airport is embarking on a new marketing
campaign – Committed to You – to “build the confidence in individuals that it is not
only safe to travel, it’s safe to travel through our facility,” Flynn said. Other airports
are implementing similar outreach efforts.
If there’s a silver lining to the current circumstances, Flynn indicated, it’s the fact
that the airport now has more time to work through its master plan.
“This has given us a little bit of breathing room to plan and finance construction that
is still going to be required. The passengers will come back. The economy will come
back. The needs are still there that are addressed in the master plan,” Flynn said.
Asked if some of the current COVID-19 alterations will become permanent airport
features, Flynn wouldn’t hazard a guess. “There could be some trends. How much is
going to be short-term and how much is long-term, we’re just going to have to see.”
Meanwhile, Flynn continues to navigate the strange and hectic new world of airport
management in the midst of a pandemic.
“We have never shut down,” he said. “We still have the normal day-to-day
operational items that come along with operating the facility. Plus, now the COVID-19
issues – having to cut budgets, dealing with rent-relief requests from tenants, figuring
out marketing components to build that customer confidence back up, and wondering
how are my people holding up.”
It's the people aspect – and the unknowns – that keep Flynn up at night.
“We’re very fortunate here in our airport family,” he said. “Yes, there have been
individuals diagnosed, but they have all recovered and are back to work.” But the
economy is a big concern.
“My food and beverage concessionaire had to lay off 85 of 87 employees. It was a
very hard and very personal decision they had to make. They have been able now to
recall some of those employees.”
“Now we’re just praying that we don’t see a rebound of COVID-19,” he said, “and
that all of the airlines and car rental companies can come out of this and these very
fine companies can stay in operation.” Hertz, a venerable fixture among airport car
rental companies, filed for bankruptcy in late May, emblematic of the devastation on
the travel industry wrought by the pandemic.
While Flynn is optimistic that airline travel eventually will rebound, he also suspects
it could take three to five years before it returns to levels before the pandemic. In the
interim, flight times and routes will be more limited.
“Customers are not going to have the same level of choices they had back in
February,” he said. “It’s a different world than it was three months ago. It’s going to
take time for the air transportation industry to get back to where it was.
“The biggest thing from our standpoint is patience. Patience across the board.”
- Martha Simmons