By JOHN HOWELL Iftikhar Ahmad, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, has reason to be a cautious optimist. Consider what has happened to airline traffic since people learned the meaning of COVID-19. Green, like airports across the
Iftikhar Ahmad, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, has reason to be a cautious optimist.
Consider what has happened to airline traffic since people learned the meaning of COVID-19.
Green, like airports across the world, experienced dramatic losses in passenger traffic.
The darkest day in terms of total passenger traffic at Green was April 16, 2020, when the TSA screened 107 individuals boarding flights, compared to 6,886 a year earlier.
This April 16, the TSA screened 4,935 passengers, an increase of 461 percent from 2020. The seven-day average checkpoint count for April 11-17 of this year was 60 percent of 2019, according to the TSA.
The pandemic delivered a hard punch.
Total passenger traffic for 2020, which saw routine levels of activity in January and February and half of March was 1.3 million as compared to 3.9 million in 2019. The total for this January was 75,254 passengers, a drop of 72 percent from the 275,632 passengers recorded in January 2020.
In a recent hour-long telephone interview, Ahmad was hesitant to project when the airport might see a return of pre-COVID traffic. At a minimum, he thought it could take four years.
There are a lot of unknowns.
A question that Ahmad sees as critical to airline profitability is how COVID has changed the business world. He notes that not only have businesses adapted to having employees work from home, they are comfortable using Zoom and other platforms to conduct virtual meetings that would have otherwise been held in person and required a business flight. These are passengers that frequently fly first class and can make the difference between a flight that makes or loses money. Ahmad said the consensus is that virtual meetings will end up eliminating 10 percent of business travel.
The airlines aren’t idly waiting for better times.
According to a report in the April 29 edition of the Wall Street Journal, airlines are looking to serve new and smaller markets and are adding destinations to their flight schedules in anticipation of attracting leisure travelers. Southwest, the largest carrier at Green, was reported as adding four destinations to its pre-COVID schedule of 37 cities.
“Carriers are quickly adjusting to the demands for leisure destinations and not bothering yet with restoring hourly service to tradition business-service markets,” writes Scott McCartney in the Wall Street Journal.
Ahmad sees other factors restraining airline travel, including the fear of catching COVID-19 or a variant and unease of being around other people even as greater and greater percentages of the population are fully vaccinated, although that appeared to be less of a factor Friday morning as passengers waited at the baggage claim on a Frontier flight from Tampa.
A 2020 graduate of Johnson & Wales University, Megan Comtois said she couldn’t pass up the $200 roundtrip fare to visit relatives in Florida. She said the flight down was about a third full, but nearly every seat was taken on the return.
Comtois took advantage of discount fares to visit friends in Chicago last year. She remarked on a noticeable increase in activity between then and now.
There’s reason to be optimistic.
Looking at the bigger picture at Green, John Goodman, assistant vice president of media relations, wrote in an email, “we expect April 2021 will surpass April 2020 volume with available seats up 26 percent over March 2021. By June, 2021 we expect to have another 15 percent more monthly seats available than in April 2021 as supply adjusts to rising demand.”
Gov. Dan McKee’s announcement that further expands the reopening of the Rhode Island economy beginning May 28 goes a long way in boosting confidence that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. It’s thought that pent-up demand to travel is starting to blossom as virus restrictions are lifted and a greater proportion of the population is vaccinated.
A survey conducted over Twitter and released April 23 by Skyes Enterprises ranked Rhode Islanders seventh in the country as most eager to travel post-vaccine and 24th as most eager to travel right now. Other data released in the report includes that 61 percent of those aged 35-44 are most inclined to travel internationally this summer if vaccinate. Both the youngest (18-24) and oldest (65-plus) age groups were least interested in traveling internationally this summer and those ages 25-34 were largely in favor (55 percent) of requiring proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to travel abroad.
The Wall Street Journal carried more encouraging news. It reported airlines are preparing for a rebound in leisure travel and that Southwest is recalling pilots and flight attendants in anticipation of a “bustling summer of vacations.”
Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly is quoted as saying, “we believe the worst is behind us. I’m relieved. I’m optimistic. I’m enthused. I’m grateful.”
Southwest flight attendant Christine Bates, who was being dropped off at Green last week, is seeing a return of traffic. She thought it was time to reopen terminal restaurants and shops because people are there. Dunkin’ Donuts in both the north and south concourses, as well as restaurants in both courses, are open, Goodman said.
Kristen Adamo, president and CEO of the Providence/Warwick Visitors Convention Bureau, shares such exuberance. She said the governor’s announcement that dismantlement of the field hospital at the Rhode Island Convention Center with expectation the facility would be ready for conventions late this summer promises to save bookings scheduled for late August and going forward. That is good news for hotels and the airport.
Since the shutdown Warwick hotels have recorded better occupancy rates than those in Providence with the gap narrowing. In March Warwick hotels recorded a 54.1 percent occupancy at an average daily rate of $84.27. Providence hotel were at 53.9 percent occupancy at an average daily rate of $100.83. Adamo attributes Warwick’s greater occupancy to lower rates and location. She said the airport also plays a role as flight crews use Warwick hotels.
She is hopeful of summer Warwick hotel occupancy rates of 60 to 70 percent.
Adamo is encouraged by Gov. McKee’s decision enabling sporting tournaments. Rhode Island is host to a variety of events that fill hotel rooms and can mean additional air traffic.
Bookings for this year are promising. Among the larger events on the calendar is the Ocean State Lobster Fest, a series of ice hockey playoffs scheduled for this June that has booked 4,124 room nights [most of them with Warwick hotels] with a projected economic impact of $2.6 million, the Rhode Island Indian Council Inc in September with 1,407 room nights and a $783,373 projected impact and the American Contract Bridge League New England Fiesta to be held at the convention center in August with 780 room nights.
John Gibbons of the RI Sports Commission that makes arrangements for the bridge events, said the ACBL is one of the larger events booked through the convention bureau.
The bridge league held it national tournament at the convention center in 2014, a 12-day event attended by 13,000 bridge players with a $7 million impact on the state’s economy. Gibbons said the league looked to hold its national event this year in Providence, but scaled it back to the New England Fiesta because of covid. He is hopeful the national event will return to Rhode Island next year.
Adamo underscores the importance of conventions to the hospitality sector of the economy no matter the size. She urged Rhode Islanders to call the bureau at (401) 456-0231 if a group they belong to is considering a convention no matter the size. She and her staff stand ready to make suggestions and help make arrangements.
As for what might improve air traffic and further boost the state’s economy, Adamo said major hub connections are vital enabling passengers to reach destinations with a single stop. She listed Dallas, Denver, Chicago and Atlanta. Green lacks flights to Dallas and Denver. She also feels changing the name of the airport from T.F. Green to Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport, as proposed in legislation, will help.
While passenger traffic was hit by the pandemic, Ahmad reports that cargo increased. From March 2020 to March of this year cargo deliveries increased by 11.6 percent. It continues to go up.
Year to date, January through March, cargo is up 19.8 percent with a total of 8.2 million pounds as compared to 6.8 million pounds for the same period last year.
The decline in traffic punched a hole in airport revenues with parking being one of the biggest hits. Long term parking lot E was closed and the short-term lot in front of the terminal was opened to long-term parking rates.
RIAC CFO Brian Schattle said parking revenues year to date through February are down 80 percent from $11 million to $2 million. He said federal programs and CARES Act funding have helped offset those losses and enabled the airport to meet operating costs and debt service.
The airport has taken advantage of the reduction in traffic to tackle several capital improvement projects. Federal funds secured by the RI Congressional delegation are underwriting a $8.7 million project to renovate and upgrade the 25-year-old restrooms. The first phase of that project is to be completed in November with the second phase by next spring.
RIAC is also in the midst of reconstructing Runway 16/34 that has been closed since last September. That is a $27 million federally funded project. And RIAC is taking the opportunity to repave Parking Lot E.
Ahmad said Green currently provides non-stop service to 22 destinations and the airport and airlines are ready for a full return of passengers. He said the pace of return traffic is expected, that he believes in his team and, “were excited about it.”