Despite decisions by two competing airlines to drop all four flights to and from Chicago, the local airport, known as CHO, has recently seen rebounding passenger counts.
“They’re at about 75 percent of what they were pre-pandemic,” said Melinda Crawford, executive director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport Authority.
Crawford, named Airport Manager of the Year last month by the Virginia Department of Aviation, will update Charlottesville City Council Tuesday night on CHO operations.
But downtown resident Mark Quigg knows what he wants: the return of those Chicago flights.
“I’m in mourning,” said Quigg, a professor of neurology at the University of Virginia. Quigg said he often flew day-trips to serve with the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Epilepsy Society— both of which are located in the Windy City.
“It was incredibly convenient to drive the 20 minutes or whatever to the airport, do your business in Chicago, and fly home, so you’re sleeping in your own bed that night,” Quigg said.
Quigg would also fly from CHO to Chicago on the way to West Coast destinations. However, the two Chicago round-trips offered by American Airlines were axed in November, 2020, when passenger traffic was a fraction of its earlier heights. And in June of this year, CHO lost its two remaining Chicago flights when United Airlines pulled out of this market.
Quigg is not sympathetic to the carriers, which received $54 billion in federal bailout funds at the height of the pandemic.
“Didn’t we bail the airlines out to keep service up?” asked Quigg. “The answer is yeah, but not for Charlottesville.”
In addition to losing Chicago, CHO lost service to Philadelphia in November, 2021, when American Airlines canceled both of its two daily arrivals and departures. Crawford notes in her status report that, typically, between 15 and 18 daily flights remain to Charlotte, Dulles, Atlanta, and New York’s LaGuardia to provide myriad connections.
“From those four airports,” said Crawford, “you can get to anywhere in the world.”
Quigg isn’t convinced that it makes sense to try to connect to Charlottesville when hundreds of direct flights are available from Richmond and the Washington, D.C. airports. He’ll soon fly to Sweden, but he won’t start at CHO. He says he’ll make the 100-mile drive to Dulles even though CHO picked up a third daily Dulles connection in the wake of losing Chicago and Philadelphia.
“I’m just not going to use Charlottesville,” said Quigg. “The two-hour drive up north is cheaper and leaves you less likely to be stranded.”
For example, on Oct. 3, a round-trip ticket out of CHO to San Francisco on United through Dulles costs $400, booking a month out. A round-trip, non-stop flight from Dulles to San Francisco on United costs $209, booking a month out.
When Crawford speaks to City Council Tuesday night, she may note that on a peak day in June, 2022, 1,113 people flew in or out of CHO, according to the report. While that’s a massive upturn from the gloomiest pandemic days of April 2020 when CHO saw just 20 daily passengers, it’s below the levels seen three years ago. On the peak day in June, 2019, 1,379 passengers flew in or out of CHO. But that was with 25 flights. Yet she remains optimistic about the future— if her team can lure more flights.
“Every time they’d put a new service in this airport,” she said, “the seats would sell.”
Case in point, said deputy director Jason Burch, was the Chicago service, which originated with about $700,000 in grant money that CHO secured in 2010 under a Department of Transportation program to bolster service at smaller airports. While Burch said that the Chicago flights became self-sustaining, CHO remains at the mercy of the airlines, his boss explained.
“The airlines,” said Crawford, “are reviewing their operations continuously, so they’re going to put their plane— their most valuable asset— where it can make the most money.”
The most passengers and profits, she said, stem from a post-pandemic surge in flights to vacation destinations, such as Florida, Colorado, Montana and Hawaii. Many leisure locations now exceed their pre-pandemic traffic.
“It’s not that CHO has done something wrong or is not profitable for the airlines,” says Crawford. “It’s just that right now the leisure market is driving things.”
In other words, an airline will make more money by moving its jets closer to the most popular recreation-oriented airports. Prior to the pandemic, CHO’s traffic had been growing at about a 4% annual rate, said Crawford.
“We are rebounding,” she says. “We’re just not rebounding as fast as the leisure markets.”
Still, Crawford sees Central Virginia tourism increasing and promotes Charlottesville to the airlines in the hopes of getting more flights.
“We keep CHO’s name in front of them, and we remind them what a good partner CHO is to their service,” Crawford said.
Some things that CHO has been able to accomplish during its quieter days are capital upgrades that Crawford hopes will make the airport more attractive to the airlines. In her report, Crawford has said she will mention:
a $9.7 million expansion of the apron (where planes park) wrapped in early 2021;
a $2.6 million taxiway relocation (where planes move) wrapped in later 2021;
a $4 million build-out of outdoor elevators and walkways aims for completion in November; and
a $2.5 million replacement of the escalators to the upper gate is slated for completion later this month.
Still ahead is a $4.4 million project to install LED lighting throughout the airport.
While these things may make CHO more attractive to airlines, frequent flyer Quigg said there is just one thing that will make CHO attractive to him:
“Bringing back the Chicago flights.”