Passengers are coming back to the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport and officials say they hope that will attract more flights and routes as the country reopens from COVID-19 lockdowns and slowdowns.
“Things aren’t back to normal, but they’re slowly getting better, and that’s a good thing for the whole community,” Melinda Crawford, the airport’s executive director, said Thursday in a virtual meeting with local government, tourism and industry officials.
Crawford said that as more passengers return to traveling, airlines will return more flights and more destinations to the airport.
“We’re open. We just need travelers to check us because if passengers don’t respond to a service [offered by airlines], that service will not be coming back,” Crawford said. “We’re looking forward to schools opening up and businesses opening up. We hope to be a part of that.”
Officials are expecting more than 700 passengers a day to move through the airport as graduation ceremonies open up at local schools and the University of Virginia. That’s still significantly less than the number of people who went through the airport pre-pandemic.
“In that time period, we would normally serve about 2,500 passengers. On the other hand, this same time last year, we served about 87 passengers,” Crawford said.
Last spring saw a large drop in the number of people flying in and out of town, officials said.
“We served about 750,000 passengers in 2019. When we went into 2020, we were soaring that high again. If airlines added more seats to their flights or more flights going out, our travelers were filling them,” Crawford said.
Then came COVID-19. According to information released by airport officials, the airport lost about 10% of its income during Fiscal Year 2020, which ended in June 2020. For the current fiscal year, the airport could have seen a 46.6% budget drop if not for a monetary infusion from the federal government’s CARES Act.
With the federal funds, the airport had to cut its budget only about 10%.
The airport does not receive funding from local governments. The majority of its budget comes from flight operations, concessions, parking fees and other income that it generates, as well as Federal Aviation Administration-funded projects and operations.
“This airport would not have survived as it did without the federal CARES money. The CARES money has been the lifeblood for us and allowed us to weather this storm,” Crawford said.
The storm didn’t just rain on the airport — it poured. Airport officials said the pandemic slashed by half the number of flights leaving the tarmac and halved the number of destinations at which regional flyers could land.
Flights out of the airport fell from 25 to 12 as United, Delta and American Airlines all cut their operations by half. American, which flew 14 flights pre-pandemic from the airport, cut back to seven flights.
Philadelphia, Chicago and LaGuardia airports were dropped as destinations, leaving local flyers a choice of Chicago, Charlotte, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta as their connection points.
In May 2020, there were days when only three flights left the airport and only three destinations could be reached.
“In April 2020, we hit an all-time industry low. There were days when we typically would see 2,500 passengers and that dropped to 250 passengers,” Crawford said. “When the bottom fell out here, it also fell out across the nation.”
Facing less of a slowdown and nearer to a dead stop, officials shut down the airport gift shop and changed some jobs around to meet new sanitation protocols and retain as many of the airport’s 50 employees as possible.
The airport’s Turbo Grill, operated by Tailwind Concessions, scaled back hours but remained open to serve passengers, officials said.
Jason Burch, deputy executive director for the airport, said officials are now considering passenger health protections when reviewing changes and designs at the airport rather than just energy efficiency and operational ease.
“I think the pandemic has made a big difference in how we look at operations,” he said. “It has opened our eyes to ways to protect our customers and passengers.”
Staff and administration took the pandemic downturn as a time to review operations and to make upgrades and repairs to the heating and ventilation, parking lots and airport apron, the area around the terminal.
They also started making plans to expand the terminal, build a parking deck and improve access to the terminal from the parking lots.
In the meantime, officials say the flights that are operating are doing so safely.
“If you’re flying, you can expect that your plane will be full. The airlines have reduced the number of flights but they’re selling most of the seats and passengers will be wearing masks,” Crawford said. “Everybody is cleaning, from the crews on the planes to our staff in the airport, to make sure everything is as safe as possible.”