Passenger traffic was slashed in half amid the coronavirus pandemic at Springfield-Branson National Airport in 2020, and officials say a notable bounce back for leisure and business travel isn’t expected in 2021.
The airport’s passenger count finished the year just shy of 600,000, compared with a record 1.19 million in 2019. The percentage decline at the start of 2021 is on par with last year’s finish, said spokesperson Kent Boyd.
January passengers totaled 40,857, a roughly 51% drop from 83,270 in 2020, according to SGF airport data.
“We really had no idea,” Boyd said of projecting passenger counts last year. “That’s been one of the frustrating things about this. Because of the pandemic, there’s just so many variables.”
Last year started on a positive note, as passengers filled airplanes 10% over 2019 levels in both January and February.
“Then March is when the bottom started dropping out,” he said.
By April, total passengers were under 5,800, a 93.5% decrease – the steepest decline of any month last year, Boyd said. Traffic slowly picked up the remainder of the year, according to airport data.
The airlines that provide service out of Springfield – Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines – were all flying reduced schedules for much of the year, Boyd said. However, two of them have plans in the coming months to increase their local schedules.
Las Vegas-based Allegiant announced a new route at the airport as part of a nationwide service expansion. Twice-weekly flights between Springfield and the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas, are scheduled to start May 28, according to a news release. Additionally, Chicago-based United Airlines is resuming its route between the Springfield airport, and Houston Intercontinental Airport on March 4, Boyd said, noting it was suspended in May amid the pandemic.
Boyd said while American, Delta and United primarily cater to the business travel market in Springfield, Allegiant mostly serves leisure travelers. As the pandemic kept people from traveling last year, the airlines responded by cutting seats available in Springfield by nearly 36%. Allegiant’s cuts were the smallest at roughly 20%, while business traveler-minded American and Delta were both over 30% and United reduced seats by half, he said.
While officials say it’ll take years for both leisure and business travel to reach pre-pandemic levels, business activity is expected to have a greater lag.
A November 2020 report from the U.S. Travel Association estimated national spending generated from business travel would fall by more than half in 2020 to $141 billion from $334 billion in 2019. The organization projected it would take until 2024 to get back above $300 billion.
“There’s a lot of issues preventing the business travel from coming back as quick as we’d like to see it,” said Tracy Kimberlin, president and CEO of Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc., citing contributors such as social distancing concerns and company travel restrictions.
Around 80% of overnight travel in Springfield is generally split evenly between business and leisure, Kimberlin said. The remaining 20% is made up of meetings and conventions, sports events and miscellaneous purposes.
The vacation market might be the first to rebound, he said.
“There’s certainly a pent-up demand to get out there and travel again,” he said. “We’ll start seeing that as the vaccine rolls out and is more widely spread than it is now.”
However, a significant boost to the airline industry could be a longer wait.
“Outdoor destinations and drive destinations are going to benefit the most,” he said.
While Springfield-Branson National Airport experienced a steep passenger decline from its 2019 record-setting level, Boyd said it was still not as significant as other larger airports in the region. Kansas City International Airport marked a 62% decline last year, St. Louis Lambert International Airport dipped 60% and Tulsa International Airport was down 56%, according to reports by the airports.
As the local airport looks for a boost in passengers, activity is ramping up on an $11 million project.
American Airlines Group Inc. (Nasdaq: AAL) subsidiary Envoy Air Inc. is expanding its aircraft maintenance operations with a 55,000-square-foot maintenance hangar. Brian Weiler, director of the Springfield airport, said work has started on the project, slated for completion in November on 7 undeveloped acres in the airport’s cargo area. The airport is funding the construction project through a bond issuance approved in September by City Council, Weiler said. Envoy entered a 20-year lease agreement with a 10-year option for the new hangar. It currently operates a 22,500-square-foot facility in the airport’s general aviation area through a lease agreement signed 15 years ago, he said.
“The old facility is not able to house the newer airplanes that Envoy is flying,” Boyd said of the company’s Embraer E-175 aircraft. “The tail on these newer planes is too tall for the hangar. This newer hangar will have room for three of these bigger airplanes.”
Envoy Vice President of Maintenance Jay Murray said the E-175 aircraft are the largest in its fleet. The new hangar will allow line maintenance for its daily American Eagle service from Springfield to American’s hubs in Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago. “The new facility will allow us to strengthen our team of mechanics, inventory control clerks, management and support staff to support the maintenance operation in this important market,” he said via email, noting 10 new jobs will be created.
Missouri Department of Economic Development spokesperson Ashton Kever said Envoy is receiving roughly $78,000 in state incentives over six years through the Missouri Works program. Missouri Works helps businesses create jobs and facility expansions through payroll withholdings or tax credits, according to the DED website.
The new jobs will add to the airport’s current roster of 98 full-time employees, Boyd said. The local organization has managed to hold onto all its workers throughout the pandemic.
“We haven’t had any layoffs and given the current circumstances and what we know of the course of the pandemic, I don’t see that happening in 2021,” he said.
Web Editor Geoff Pickle contributed.
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