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Charleston Business

Commercial Air Travel: Holding out for a slow recovery

By L.C. Leach III

Officials at airports across South Carolina are projecting several years before state airports fully recover from coronavirus.

Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP) in the Upstate is currently operating at about 25 percent capacity – up from days in April when it was serving fewer than 100 people.

“We are now serving over 1,200 passengers a day – compared to our normal volume of 4,500–5,000 daily,” said GSP spokeswoman Michelle Fleming. “And prior to the pandemic were anticipating a record-breaking year for 2020.”

GSP had projected to surpass its 2019 total of 1.3 million enplanements; now that projection has been cut in half.

“Our passenger activity decreased 42 percent in March, 95 percent in April, and 88 percent in May,” Fleming said.

And per capita, GSP’s decline in commercial air traffic has been comparable with large and small airports across both the U.S. and South Carolina.

Beaufort County, for example, which operates Hilton Head Airport, had only 24,000 commercial passengers through its terminal in May 2019. But in May 2020, that number was down 75 percent.

“On average, airline revenue decreased 77 percent over March through May,” said county Airports Director Jon Rembold.

Four other state airports with a significant drop in operations include:

Myrtle Beach International Airport. In May and June 2020, passenger numbers were down more than 500,000 from the same times the previous year.

Charleston International Airport. Commercial air traffic dropped 95 percent in March. There were days when the airport had only 400 people through its checkpoint, instead of the usual 3,000.

Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CAE). CAE began 2020 expecting the year to surpass its 1.3 million passenger mark from 2019. 

But by May 2020, passenger traffic had plummeted 93 percent – a record low for CAE – and from June 7-13, CAE saw only 3,505 passengers, compared to 15,829 for the same week in 2019.

“And we’re currently projecting that by Dec. 31, 2020, we will see a total loss of $8.1 million,” said airport director Mike Gula. 

• Florence Regional Airport (FRA). In April 2019, FRA had 3,414 enplanements. In April 2020, that number fell a whopping 94.6 percent to only 183 – and June numbers were still down 50 percent from the same time a year ago.

“Airlines face a difficult challenge in stimulating demand,” said Lauren Smith, spokeswoman with The Aviation Agency, an aviation marketing agency headquartered in Bloomington, Minn. “Mass transit is now seen as unappealing and too risky for much of the public, suppressing aggregate demand for three to possibly 10 years.”

Airport relief has come from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program funding, and the federal government’s $10 billion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Airport Grant Program.

GSP, for instance, was awarded a total of more than $30 million from both grants, helping GSP remain operational during the Covid-19 crisis. 

But in the long run, Fleming said, the money will not replace passengers.

“And we expect flight volume and passenger demand to continue to be very low through the rest of 2020,”she said.

And until coronavirus goes away, Greenville residents Jaelyn Neely and Harold Moore said they intend to stay firmly on solid ground.

“Some of my family members have contracted the virus, and I know people who have died from it – so at this stage, I wouldn’t want to risk air travel,” Neely said.

Moore added, “If I had to travel by air in an emergency, I would use a tight-fitting respirator to cover my face. But other than that, I don’t plan on going anywhere by plane until this coronavirus is under control.”