Travelers disappeared from airports in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world. Leisure travelers began a steady return in 2021, but business travelers remained grounded.
Now, travel is back to enough levels to raise ticket prices and create long lines as airlines add new routes to more places. Even business travelers are showing signs of coming back.
As far as all traffic at Charleston International Airport is concerned, recovery in a city synonymous with Southeast tourism saw 706,349 more arrivals and departures between January and April than the year before.
There are 66,116 more passengers than in the same period in 2019 and a recovery reflected throughout the state.
Beginning June 23, Breeze Airways will operate daily nonstop flights from Charleston to Orlando and vice versa. On June 28, the airline will launch a daily direct flight from New York’s Westchester County Airport, while Sun Country Airlines will launch a nonstop flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Thursdays and Sundays in April.
“We are pleased to add Breeze Airways’ new daily nonstop service to Westchester Airport to our list of direct flights,” said Elliott Summey, Chief Executive Officer and CEO of Charleston International Airport, in a press release. “With tremendous demand to reach the New York and Connecticut area, we believe that daily nonstop to White Plains will be a home run for the Charleston area.”
Breeze Airways direct flights to San Francisco and Las Vegas, as well as flights to Syracuse, NY, and Fort Myers, Florida, have also been added to the Charleston schedule of at least 13 additional routes added since early 2020.
up and up
Columbia Metropolitan Airport witnessed an 85.9% year-over-year increase in passenger traffic in February, with about 90,000 more passengers from January to March 2022 than the same period in 2021, according to the airport.
“We are seeing the return of long-awaited personal and business travel in high volumes – which is welcome,” said Mike Gula, the airport’s chief executive, in a statement. “We have not returned to pre-pandemic numbers due to the disruption to air travel that COVID-19 has brought to airports around the world, but we have far exceeded initial projections.”
At Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, a location whose base may be more of the business traveler than other state destinations, total traffic has recovered about 90% from 2019 numbers.
Like CHS, GSP also opened new routes and direct locations during the pandemic, including a five-day Contour Airlines flight to Nashville and nonstop service to Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville, Florida from Silver Airways.
“Business traffic is coming back and we are starting to see more over the summer,” said Tom Tyra, director of air services and communications development at GSP. “We now have a lot of summer vacation travelers now that classes are over, but hopefully in the fall we will see more business travel returning to the GSP.”
While the removal of air mask mandates has made air travel more attractive to some, Tyra thinks the lack of travel and other restrictions in popular GSP destinations plays more of a role in the increase in professional passengers.
“As companies brought people back to the office, they were ready to come back and talk to customers,” he told SC Biz News.
Soaring gasoline prices and corresponding ticket prices won’t keep the summer traveler away, he predicted. The impact of both factors on the fall numbers – again, more reflecting professional traffic – has yet to be seen.
“But we expect to see ticket prices a little higher than what we had,” Tyra said. “Of course, during the pandemic they were really low because airlines were just hoping to get customers back on the plane. And now that they are ready to go, all the planes will be very full.”
Passenger routes to Europe, many of which were restricted in the previous two years leading to the transformation of Aer Lingus and British Airway jets into cargo planes on the GSP, are now back in effect.
But along with rising prices, airlines and airports have another problem with the system: a lack of pilots and staff in general.
“A lot of the airlines have seen some of their pilots retire early or move to other jobs, and now they’re going back and training some of the pilots,” Tyra said. “They may not be flying as many planes as they expected, so that just makes the seats out there more scarce. And so when you have high demand and low supply, the price is going to go up and people are buying as fast as they can.”
It is a bird. It’s an airplane. It’s a storm cloud…
On June 17, Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with airline executives to get a response to the series of delays that have built up during the start of the peak travel season.
“Air travelers should be able to expect reliable service as demand returns to levels not seen since before the pandemic,” Buttigieg said in a statement.
There may not be an easy answer.
In what experts call “Travel Armageddon,” delays increased in mid-June. U.S. cancellations reached 10,000 over the weekend of June 18-19, with more than 4,200 flights delayed and nearly 900 canceled on Sunday alone, according to FlightAware, which tracks flights in real time.
During the peak of delays and cancellations over the weekend, Denver, Dallas and Atlanta were the epicenter of grounded flights. As of June 19, the three airports reported a total of 92 delays and 28 cancellations, according to the website’s Misery Map.
On June 17, Tyra said she thought storms and delays at air traffic control in major cities — common curses for summer flying — were creating the biggest uproar.
“You can have a storm in, say, New York, and it goes through Philadelphia, Washington, DC,” he told SC Biz News. “And then, all of a sudden, all the flights that don’t even go there, but that pass through there, are impacted. We are seeing a lot of that.”
The pop-up storms throughout June have only exacerbated the concerns of many travelers who have not boarded since 2019, as have strikes on a growing number of airlines in Europe: EasyJet, Ryanair, Brussels Airlines and at Charles De Gaulle Airport.
And for the business traveler, time is even more essential.
On Monday, June 20, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport reported “significant” delays, according to FlightStats by Cirium.
Delays on the GSP were “low but increasing” and “low but decreasing” on the CHS. Like most regional airports across the state, the CAE was found to have a “very low” number of delays.
Contact Molly Hulsey at 864-720-1223.