Regional airline travel takes big hit from COVID-19 in 2020

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — For the first two months of 2020, passenger numbers at the Sioux Falls Regional Airport looked great. The airport served just over 100,000 total passengers in February, an 11.6% increase from the same month in 2019.

Then, of course, came COVID-19.

The change in people’s behavior was immediately apparent — March passengers were down over 38% from 2019 — but the worst of it came in April, when only 4,341 passengers got on or off a plane at the airport, a 95% decrease.

Since then, passenger numbers have slowly crept upwards, but the airport still ended up with a total passenger count of 588,188 in 2020, down nearly 50% from 2019.

“It’s better,” said Dan Letellier, the airport’s executive director, in an interview. “People have gotten a little more comfortable.”

The holiday season was relatively busy, Letellier said, and they’ve recently had some of their strongest days since the middle of March, before things really changed, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported.

Now things will slow down a bit, he said, before vacations and spring break start to see an increase — for those who still go, at least.

Letellier pointed to a recent policy from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requiring that travelers entering the United States from out of the country to show a negative coronavirus test before getting on their flight.

“It’s going to hamper a lot of travel to the Caribbean, Mexico for people who had trips planned,” he said.

Lorie Buus, a travel consultant with Sioux Falls’ All About Travel, agreed. Emphatically.

“It was devastating,” Buus said of the new policy. “We finally had some hope for our industry and they really kind of pulled the rug out from under us.”

Buus said she’d seen similar results to the airport in April, when businesses “went down to pretty much zero.”

Things started to get better near the end of the year, she said, and January had been good until the announcement was made.

Like many other industries, Letellier said airlines and airports are hoping for a downturn in COVID-19 cases as the vaccine continues to be rolled out, adding that they continue to go “above and beyond” with cleaning, disinfecting and safety protocols.

“I think in general, people that have flown are not as concerned about traveling itself,” Letellier said, adding that it was more about how things were in their destination — and that those still on flights didn’t seem to be altering their travel plans.

“The places that were popular before,” he said, “are still popular.”

Buus agreed, saying that she’s still getting a lot of phone calls and pricing requests from people who want to travel, even if they can’t quite yet.

“We’re just counting on numbers going down and the vaccine to get out to everybody,” she said. “Hopefully things will stabilize.”