Despite a significant drop in passengers, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport officials says it has a lot to be thankful for in the new year.
“I believe that going into the new year, we’re going to be turning the corner, especially with the vaccine,” CHO Executive Director Melinda Crawford said. “And it’s not just airports; it’s our economy and the general conditions of our environment right now.”
The airport has remained open throughout the pandemic, and it has made a number of changes to the facility and its cleaning protocols to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Still, passenger numbers have dropped by about 60% to 70%, officials said.
Nationally, the Sunday after Thanksgiving was the busiest air travel day since the pandemic started, according to the numbers from the Transportation Security Administration.
Crawford has a saying she shares regularly — “when you see one airport, you’ve seen one airport” — and said that recovery at airports across the country has varied depending on how much the area has opened up and the kind of passengers they typically serve.
“We’re not behind the curve; we’ve been about with the industry,” she said. “We’re just not one of those airports that [is] experiencing the significant recovery and a quick recovery.”
CHO had been steadily seeing increases in passengers departing from and arriving at the airport over the last 10 years.
As the Christmas and New Years holidays near, airports are anticipating an increase in passengers, while health officials are asking people to stay home or, if they do decide to travel, take extra precautions.
The Thomas Jefferson Health District is recommending people stay home and celebrate the holidays virtually, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend postponing travel and staying home
Locally, cases have steadily risen, with 1,233 new cases reported in the health district this month, already making December the month with the highest number of new cases since the pandemic began.
If people do decide to gather, health officials recommend people keep groups small, stay local and stay outside, while wearing masks and social distancing.
AAA is projecting that the number of holiday travelers in Virginia between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3 will be down 30.7% this year compared with 2019, and that airline travel will be down 60%, according to a news release.
At CHO, airport staff are continuously cleaning throughout the day, Crawford said, and are fogging with sanitizing agents every night.
“We’ve made improvements to our building and our HVAC system — we put UV lighting systems in it that kills germs,” she said.
TSA recently installed new acrylic shields at the security checkpoint at CHO in areas where TSA officers typically interact with passengers, including the travel document checking podiums, areas where travelers prepare their carry-on items for X-ray screening and the search areas.
“The installation of these shields is just one of many initiatives that TSA has put in place with the goal of reducing the likelihood of cross contamination among travelers and employees,” said Chuck Burke, TSA’s Federal Security Director for the airport, in a news release. “These shields provide an additional layer of protection to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.”
Earlier this year, CHO received about $6.3 million from the CARES Act, which Crawford said is almost depleted. She said they were able to keep all staff onboard during the pandemic, and cut some costs by not filling some vacant positions.
“This money has truly been a lifeline,” she said. “ … I’m hopeful that there will be an additional CARES Act coming forward in the future, because I think everybody realizes that probably one of the worst industries hit besides tourism and the restaurant industry has been the airline industry.”
As airlines decreased service, CHO saw a 97% drop in passengers in April, but has started to see more passengers return to the skies in recent months.
“An airport can only grow according to the amount of seats that are being provided by the airlines in that community … and just like every airport across the country, our service has been reduced,” she said.
American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are still operating out of the airport, but are mainly flying to Charlotte, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., respectively.
The decrease in passengers has allowed the airport to complete some small maintenance projects, but the pandemic will also modify or delay some larger plans.
The airport was able to finish one large capital project during the pandemic — adding four aircraft parking spaces to its air carrier apron.
Crawford said the airport is moving forward with a planned airport terminal area master plan, but the timing for any potential projects in the plan will now be based on the number of passengers returning to at least pre-pandemic levels instead of a set timeline.
Parking expansion plans are also being delayed. The airport had been planning to build a four-story parking garage.
“While it’s still something that we’re looking at, we’re not moving forward with it right now,” she said.
Crawford said the pandemic is another storm that the airport has had to weather.
“We’re ready to serve our passengers,” she said. “We’ve been ready to soar, and we’re continuing to get ready to soar again.”