Quad City Airport Sees Increasing Passengers as Thanksgiving Approaches
Despite federal health officials urging people to stay home, millions of people will fly during Thanksgiving week, including many through the Quad City International Airport, Moline.
More than 1 million air travelers passed through security checkpoints at U.S. airports Nov. 20 and 22 for only the second and third time since the pandemic began, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Sunday was the single-busiest day at airport checkpoints since March. Saturday, the travel numbers neared a million, bringing the three-day total to more than 3 million passengers.
The surge in weekend travelers came a day after the CDC issued its warning against holiday travel. During a news briefing Thursday, Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC’s Covid-19 incident manager, said the agency recommended “against travel during the Thanksgiving period.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 1 million Covid cases were reported in the U.S. between Nov. 12 and 19. As of Monday, there have been more than 12.3 million positive cases and at least 256,755 Covid-related deaths in the U.S., according to The New York Times.
Over the past week, there has been an average of 171,376 cases per day nationwide, an increase of 54 percent from the average two weeks earlier.
“As cases continue to increase rapidly across the United States, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with,” the CDC says on its website. “Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu.”
“The Covid-19 pandemic has been stressful and isolating for many people,” the CDC says. “Gatherings during the upcoming holidays can be an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends. This holiday season, consider how your holiday plans can be modified to reduce the spread of Covid-19 to keep your friends, families, and communities healthy and safe.
Ben Leischner, executive director of the Quad City International Airport, said Monday that air travel is extremely safe, compared to many indoor activities, regarding Covid risk.
“I would say because some of the research that’s been done and the pandemic has been going on more than half a year, there’s pretty good data on how safe air travel itself really is,” he said.
“Now you look at the positive exchange of air in an aircraft – it’s one of the lower-risk activities somebody could do, traveling in an airplane,” he said.
“Airlines obviously take safety during travel very seriously, so all the major airlines have mask requirements,” Leischner said. “Our airport, you’re required to have a mask on if you’re inside the building. It’s one of those things – safety is paramount, so in the public facility, we’ve invested a lot to make sure the travel experience is as safe as possible.
“That’s one of the benefits of flying out of a smaller airport – there’s a lot more space to spread out,” he said of the Moline airport. “We have a large terminal for the amount of flights now, so there is plenty of space.”
“The good thing about being on an airplane, travel itself is one of the lower-risk things you can do,” Leischner said. “You’re in a metal tube and all the air is being provided – where that air is super-heated up to 450 degrees and then it’s cooled down to 30 degrees, and it comes out through filtration to this tube, with a positive air exchange every two to three minutes, you’re getting new air coming through.”
“That’s the type of environment where it’s not just filtration, but the positive pressure of the air, keeps the virus from spreading,” he said. “Versus something, where you’re stagnant air in a large room full of people, kind of opposite ends of the spectrum.”
It’s a sensitive balancing act in considering CDC recommendations and personal choice in reuniting with family for the holidays.
“It is difficult hearing public officials and the CDC urge people to stay home,” Leischner said. “I think it’s important we all do our part.
However, there’s plenty of essential travel that still needs to take place that’s always going on in the background. What I expect to see, we’ll see a national trend this holiday, where travel dates are more spread out, and that can be because of an increase in remote work and virtual school schedules, where people – instead of going four or five days – will go for a week, or two or three weeks, and quarantine while they’re there.
“I think there’s a lot of disruption, where a lot of people are forgoing the trip this year, so we’ll see a large reduction, no doubt, in the amount of travel that takes place,” he said. “We will still see close to 50 percent of the travel we saw last year. Just a lot of people are having to make those hard decisions.”
On Monday, Rock Island County reported five additional deaths, 114 new cases of Covid and record hospitalizations. The number of deaths in the county from this virus is now 134, according to Rock Island County Health Department.
Currently, a record 92 patients are in county hospitals with Covid-19, said health department administrator Nita Ludwig.
“This is a jump of 16 patients from Sunday to Monday,” she said. “We know our hospital systems sounded alarms earlier this month when the number of patients was lower. Now, we are at a crisis point with cases rising by the hundreds every day in the Quad-Cities.
“We are worried about Thanksgiving gatherings putting a further strain on our hospitals,” Ludwig said. “People being exposed on Thursday could mean even more hospitalizations next month. There still is time to change your Thanksgiving plans. Please do not gather for the holiday with people outside of your household. Remember that some people with Covid-19 might not show symptoms, but they still can infect others.”
Drop of 57% so far in 2020
The Q-C airport is still compiling passenger figures through October, but by the end of September, it has seen 57 percent fewer total passengers in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 – 527,163 last year compared to 232,768 this year.
While March 2020 saw a drop of almost half – 35,802 passengers versus 66,166 last year, the biggest decline was April, as just 2,734 passengers came though Moline compared to 59,125 in April 2019. The Q-C airport saw this year’s high in July – with 22,088 passengers compared to 64,411 the same month last year.
The July passenger numbers showed the Quad City Airport trending 4% higher in its recovery than the national average, according to TSA numbers. U.S. domestic air travel was down 70% or more compared to 2019 over the summer, as the industry continued to grapple with the impact of Covid-19.
While the airport typically caters to a larger number of business travelers who take advantage of flights to major hubs like Chicago, Minneapolis and Atlanta, leisure travel to destinations in Florida, Arizona and Nevada through Allegiant Air have bounced back in greater numbers, the Q-C airport reported in August.
“There are likely a few factors contributing to this increase, including lower airfare to vacation destinations, but also our size and location are a differentiator,” said Ashleigh Johnston, the airport’s public relations and marketing manager.
“Our convenient location means it’s a quick drive from home, there’s less contact with crowds as you arrive and you still have ample space while you’re in the airport to spread out which are all important factors to consider when traveling.”
The airport took action beginning in March to put safety measures into place. In July, the airport launched a safety campaign called #WeGoQC that encourages people to plan ahead, wear face coverings, practice social distancing and wash hands frequently or use hand sanitizer. The airport distributed over 3,800 face coverings since June.
This week, reservations are down 40 percent compared to Thanksgiving week in 2019, Leischner noted.
More people may travel more by car versus air this holiday season, he said.
“We may see a fair amount of people make the decision to stay closer and travel by car, versus air, but if you look at the average ticket prices or fares right now, I think that’s pointing a lot of people into considering air travel, if it can be done safely,” Leischner said. “The highest risk portions of travel are large crowds where you’re queued – large lines around ticketing, shuttles to parking, things like that.”
“That gives us a really distinct advantage, when it comes to safety in travel as a small airport,” he said. “It’s a very quick process, getting through TSA screening. We don’t have the lines like airports like O’Hare or even Cedar Rapids have, so there are advantages flying from a small airport. Even if you do have that connection, you’re not going through the higher-risk portions of that airport, whether it’s Atlanta, Dallas, or O’Hare.”
Compared to the start of the pandemic in the spring, the Moline airport has not been driven to lay off staff, Leischner said.
“We were very fortunate, actually, as an organization because prior to going into this pandemic, we worked with our commission to identify some functional priorities of the organization and staff, and investing in our workforce, to get things like better benefits and increased
productivity,” he said.
“We were fortunate at the staff level, from the commission down, that we wouldn’t see any layoffs for an extended period of time,” Leischner said. “We spent since February or so, focusing on our employees, so we shifted from passengers as a customer – once passengers started to fall off due to the pandemic, we had the opportunity to focus on our workforce. Which has built up morale, but also it’s an investment in the future, so as we get through this pandemic, we can hopefully see some increased productivity and efficiency organization-wide.”
The airport has 94 employees (which doesn’t include airline staff), and Congress approved about $10 billion in stimulus money for airports, as part of the CARES Act, of which Q-C Airport received $8 million, Leischner said.
“So financially, we were in a strong position. We didn’t reduce hours at the airport; we’re still a 24/7 facility, with less flights and less activity,” he said. “But we were able to use the opportunity of the slowdown to really focus on building up infrastructure – doing a deep clean of all facilities, getting the projects that have been on the table for a while, so it was a good chance to focus on the things we normally wouldn’t get an opportunity to focus on.”
The federal funding started to flow in during September, separate from the $25 billion in bailout money for U.S. airlines, which ended Sept. 30. One of the projects the Moline facility did was re-painting of the main parking lot.
“It’s just a headache because normally, it’s pretty full capacity, but with the downturn we only had maybe 80 cars in the lot, so we were able to go through and re-stripe the lot, able to make much-needed repairs to some of the asphalt, concrete and the curbing,” Leischner said. “And again, that was one – if it wasn’t for the pandemic, it was going to be a very long, drawn-out process of phasing through multiple sections of the parking lot, to make the repairs, do the striping. We were able to get it done in about two weeks because the lots were empty.”
The second stimulus for airline Covid relief has not been passed yet, he said.
“It’s something we’re certainly not banking on, so we’re trying to make smart decisions now, where we can save funds if we need to, and we’re investing in things that are gonna have a high ROI – increase revenues down the line or decrease costs down the line.”
Recovery for the industry, like many others nationally, will take a long time, the director said.
“If you asked me this question back in March, my answer would be very different than what it is now, obviously,” Leischner said. “I think a lot of people – myself included – would have assumed we’d be in a recovery phase right now, versus this drawn-out, much of the country has travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that.”
He personally was going to take a vacation around Thanksgiving with his family to the Canary Islands, but postponed it until next summer at the earliest. The industry prognosis for air travel is not returning to 2019 levels until 2023, Leischner said.
“It’s gonna be an extended period of recovery. And I think that’s important, because it gives airlines the chance to kind of recalibrate and rethink some of their operations,” he said. “There’s going to be communities that had service prior to the pandemic that won’t have it in the future. But there’s also going to be communities that didn’t have service prior to the pandemic that are gonna get service in the future. It’s just a restart for the airlines and their networks.”