ROANOKE, Va. – It’s no surprise to anyone that the travel industry has been hard hit by the coronavirus.
Now, we have a glimpse at just how bad it’s been.
In January and February, the Roanoke-Blacksburg Airport saw 7% growth compared to those two months in 2019.
However, it’s been a different story since coronavirus restrictions went into effect in March.
In March 2019, the airport saw 58,136 total passengers. In 2020, that number dropped to 28,660, a decrease of about 51%.
Then, in April, when coronavirus restrictions were in place for the entire month, only 1,823 people flew into and out of Roanoke. That’s a 97% decrease from April 2019′s 60,965 passengers.
One day last month, only 25 people flew out of the Star City, according to Brad Boettcher, with the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport.
Boettcher said that’s an all-time low for as long as records have been kept.
“It’s like we’re in the middle of a forest fire right now,” Boettcher said. “What we’re trying to do is position ourselves so once the flames die out and we get some rain and the chutes open up, try and re-imagine what our air service is going to look like.”
The downfall comes at a time when the airport set month over month and year over year passenger records for nearly five straight years. Boettcher said he feels the airport was close to securing a flight to Dallas which has been on the radar for a number of years.
Looking at more than just Roanoke, the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina, also saw a decrease in March.
The airport saw a 55% decrease in passengers from March 2019 to March 2020. Only 40,244 passengers flew into and out of Greensboro in March 2020, compared to 88,613 in March 2019.
Despite the record lows in Roanoke, customers may actually come out on top. The airport has long advocated for cheaper tickets and they’re cutting airlines a break on their fees on the costs they pay to use the airport as lever. They’re also using it as leverage to lobby for more destinations.
“When the word partnership gets thrown around and you’re still charging more money to fly out of here than you are to fly out of you know Charlotte, we had an opportunity to push back on that yet again and we did," Boettcher said.
But for that to have any chance at working, he said now more than ever people need to fly local. The airport in the last few years has spent a good amount of money on a marketing campaign promoting its brand and benefits to travelers in the region. The airport continues to see a leakage rate, where customers who are in the airport’s territory choose another airport, higher than they’d like although they’ve been making steady progress at reducing that number.
“To rebuild this air service it’s going to take everyone that can using their airport, that’s the biggest thing, the carriers are going to want to see those butts in the seats," Boettcher said.
But getting people back in the air is going to be a challenge. When passenger traffic declined after 9/11, improved security solved that problem. During the recession, a restored economy solved that decrease. But a global pandemic isn’t as easy.
“There is a lot of fear that surrounds this virus and that’s understandable," Boettcher said. “I think people are really going to have to feel comfortable about being in a confined space such as an aircraft before we’re going to see demand really pick up.”
The airport hopes to get back on track in just a few years to the upward trajectory it was previously on.