The Bad, the Ugly and… the Good?

Its been a struggle lately to find something encouraging to write about. Things are quiet. Too quiet. Every aviation event I planned to attend has been canceled. Many shops at the airport remain closed, parking lots are empty and there are few passengers wandering the concourses.

The Bad

The outlook for the travel industry continues to be pretty bleak. The number of enplanements at my airport increased over the summer from the shocking low numbers we saw in the spring, but they haven’t rebounded as strongly as everyone hoped. Total passengers are down 65% from 2019. Unfortunately, now that the summer travel season has ended, enplanements appear to be sliding backwards again. In response, the airlines have trimmed flights and we currently expect to see around 60 flights per day in September – down from 70 per day in July and August. (That’s compared to around 140 flights per day in 2019.)

The Ugly

The CARES Act funding ends at the end of September. Unless additional funding is provided, the airlines will begin downsizing. Thousands of people will lose their jobs. Whole fleets will be parked. Once this happens the airlines will be much smaller. Even if the demand for travel suddenly comes roaring back, it is unlikely they’ll be able to scale up quickly enough to meet it. Sadly, it seems that there won’t be any real recovery any time soon. And the longer this drags on, the slower it will be. Current predictions are for a possible recovery in 2024. Ouch!

The Good?

In the midst of all the bad news and discouragement I got to wondering: is there anything good going in aviation right now? It can’t be ALL bad, can it? So I set out to find if there are any silver linings hidden in the gloom.

1. Cargo

In June our cargo-dedicated airport managed to have one of the best months it has EVER had. The airport handled 31 million lbs of freight compared to around 19 million lbs in June 2019. Some international carriers haven’t returned since the pandemic began, but others have increased flights. We even picked up a new carrier – Korean air announced that they will be starting regular flights this month. Domestic charters have increased as well. It is encouraging to see that at least one sector of the industry is doing OK.

2. General Aviation

General aviation flights are down a bit from 2019, but not nearly as much as I expected. In June and July commercial carrier operations were down about 6,000 flights/month, which is a drop of around 63% from the same period in 2019. However, general aviation operations were only down about 300 flights/month, which is a drop of only 28% from the prior year. As a plane spotter, I think it is great that general aviation planes are getting more time in the spotlight. I’ve enjoyed seeing more Bonanzas, Mooneys and Cessnas around.

3. Airport Life

Regardless of what may be happening in the industry, life at the airport goes on. Airfield inspections still have to happen, the winter season has to be prepared for and unusual visitors still drop in. Last week the airport held its tri-annual emergency preparedness exercise. This year it involved a simulated aircraft fire using a replica fuselage with actual flames. I was able to leave my desk for a few minutes to go upstairs and watch. I often see ARFF practicing on the airfield, but it was cool to be able to see them in action in a more realistic situation.

Times may be stressful and the outlook rather gloomy, but airplanes are still cool and flying is still magic. It will take more than a pandemic to change that! As long as there are C-17s on the ramp and a Maules in camo, there is never a dull day at the airport. And that’s very good indeed!

OSH20 – the Week That (sort-of) Wasn’t

It’s my favorite week of the whole year! I spend 365 days looking forward to it. It’s better than Christmas. It’s Airventure Oshkosh! Except… not this year. Thanks to the current pandemic, Osh20 was canceled. There are not enough words to express how devastated I’ve been.

I tried to distract myself by taking a (socially-distanced) day-trip across the lake to a cheerful little island. But I just spent my time lurking around the airport there, looking for airplanes. I went through old photos and shared them online with the other Osh faithful. It was somewhat helpful to know that I was not alone in my grief.

In the absence of our beloved fly-in, the good folks at EAA put together the Spirit of Aviation Week. It consisted of a collection of online events and forums covering a wide-range of topics. I’ll admit I was skeptical about it at first – no virtual event can ever take the place of the real deal. But then I looked over the list of offerings and saw a few that looked interesting. So I decided to check them out. And I’m so glad I did! I carried my ipad outside, plugged in my headphones and as I listened I could almost imagine I was sitting in one of the forum buildings on the Airventure grounds.

The first event I “attended” was a panel discussion with members of the US Air Force Demo teams. Participating in the event were an F-16 pilot, an F-22 pilot, an F-35 pilot and an A-10 pilot. They discussed the challenges of keeping their skills sharp during a season when most shows have been canceled. They also talked about flying at Osh, how it is different from some of the other places they fly and how much they look forward to performing there. I was interested to learn that as a recruiting tool, the demo teams are primarily trying to reach kids ages 8-12. That seems young to me, but they say it is the best age to capture and maintain an interest in becoming military aviators.

The next event I attended was the Airline Pilot Career Outlook, hosted by United Airlines. I am not interested in becoming an airline pilot, but I was curious to get United’s take on the pandemic and the impact it is having on the industry. They reiterated what we already know – this has been the worst year for the airlines, ever. They believe it will likely be two years before they are ready to start hiring again. However, they are very cognizant of the fact that 50% of their workforce will retire in 10 years and 90% will retire in 20 years. Pandemic or not, that is a lot of pilots that will be needed. They are trying to connect with future pilots early on – a fact they emphasized by announcing their sponsorship of EAA’s Young Eagles programs.

I wrapped up the week by attending an FAA seminar entitled “Don’t Let that Airport Fool You!” With a title like that, of course I had to attend! I was curious to know just exactly how airports go around fooling people. The seminar was really about how to avoid wrong surface/wrong airport events. I learned that certain types of airport geometry (parallel and offset parallel runways, complicated layouts, etc.) can contribute to these types of events. It made me wonder how many airport planners are also pilots. Seems like it would be helpful to have hands-on experience when making decisions about taxiway placements, etc.

I really enjoyed attending these sessions and I appreciate everything EAA did to provide a taste of Airventure in the midst of a difficult year. That said, I’m really glad Osh week is over. I’m ready to stop feeling sad about what didn’t happen, and look ahead to better days. Hope to be able to see you all at Airventure 2021!

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The Pandemic and Airport Life

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There has been a lot of discussion about how the covid-19 pandemic is affecting the airlines, but what about airports? As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, every airport is different so the level of impact will vary depending on the types of traffic an airport has, how their financials are structured, etc. That said, there are some commonalities. I can only speak to what I’m seeing but you can probably draw some parallels to the airports that operate near you.

Like most airports, we get revenue through things like parking fees and concessions. We also get revenue from third parties who pay for the right to do business on airport property (like Uber and Lyft, for example) and through advertising in and around the terminal. We get income from the airlines as well, however those fees are structured to cover the cost of actually operating the airport itself. They pay a portion of terminal costs through renting gate/ticket counter/hold room space, and they cover the costs of airfield and ramp maintenance through landing fees.

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So, just how bad are the numbers right now? On a normal day in April we’d typically have around 13,000 enplanements (passengers boarding flights). This April there were days when we didn’t even have 500 enplanements. Let’s look at one of the major legacy carriers – we’ll call them Airline A. They aren’t the biggest operator for us in terms of flights or passengers, but they still do a fair amount of business at our airport. In April 2019 Airline A and its regional partners had just over 800 landings and around 67,500 enplaned passengers. In April 2020 they had 150 landings and 5,700 enplaned passengers. That’s a decrease of about 82% in landings and 91% in enplanements. When we widen the view to look at total passengers across all airlines, there was a decrease of approximately 95% in April 2020 compared to April 2019.

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Needless to say, those numbers are not enough to support the airport ecosystem. Most of the food vendors and shops have closed. At least one has closed permanently. Some of the parking lots had to be closed as well because there were so few cars it made no sense to continue to staff lot attendants or shuttle drivers. As you can imagine, revenue for the month of April was way down.

To try to mitigate the loss of income we’re doing what many other businesses are doing – cutting expenses where we can, and revising the budget to reduce spending as much as possible. We are also scaling back on capital projects, focusing only on those that are essential to the continued operation of the airport. We will be getting some assistance in the form of funds from the CARES act, which will help keep things moving, for awhile at least.

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Then there is the challenge of trying to meet social distancing and other health mandates while being mindful of expenses. Take parking, for example. Anyone who parks in a lot must ride a shuttle to get to the terminal. In order to meet social distancing guidelines, half the seats will need to be blocked off. This may not be such a big deal while passenger counts are low. However, as people return to flying it will become increasingly difficult to accommodate everyone. Do we buy more shuttles? They aren’t cheap.

With so few flights currently, we’ve considered combining the airlines into two concourses and closing the third. On the surface this sounds like a good idea. It would allow the airport to concentrate the efforts of the custodian teams and perhaps allow for reduced utility usage in the unused concourse. Except it isn’t that simple. Lease agreements take time to work through – how do you reassign the gates? How would this affect the baggage systems? And what would it mean for social distancing if employees and passengers are concentrated into two concourses instead of three?

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Cargo has been a bit of a lifeline for the airlines, and the same is true for us. While traffic at the passenger airport has been anemic, our nearby cargo airport has seen traffic levels hold nearly steady. Interestingly, many of our regular international cargo carriers did not have any landings in April. However we saw an increase in charter flights which made up most of the difference.

So what does the future hold? Given the unprecedented impact the pandemic has had on the travel industry, it’s hard to say. We will need to be patient and thoughtful. And we’ll need to continue to maintain good relationships with the communities we serve as well as our airline partners. We are, after all, in this together.B0C32904-4CFF-4A2D-94F7-847327DF1BAB

Battleships, Blackbirds and Tough Times at the Airport

C7A82B02-1E14-4212-88E2-1DC5FB1C1808Before the stay-at-home orders for the Covid-19 pandemic started, I was able sneak out to Pensacola Beach, Florida for a quick vacation. I had hoped to make a return visit to the Naval Air Museum while I was in the area, but it was not open to the public. Instead I drove over to Mobile, AL to visit Battleship Memorial Park.

Tough Ship (and Planes)

C851E28E-A66C-47A2-8098-EDDAD82E98F1As the name suggests, the main attraction is the USS Alabama, a World War II-era battleship. Parked right next door is the USS Drum, a Gato-class submarine. Both were open for self-guided tours. I have never been on any kind of military vessel before… oh my goodness the crazy steep stairs! I cannot imagine what it must have been like to climb up and down them while out at sea. Needless to say I have an even greater appreciation for our Navy and Marine service members .

Of course, what I was most excited to see were the airplanes. There were a number of them scattered around the park grounds, including a B-52, an F-15, an F-16, and a C-47. However there was also an aircraft pavillion where the REALLY cool planes are stashed. First to catch my eye when I walked through the door was a Blackbird – more specifically, an A-12. They look virtually the same , but the A-12 could fly a little faster and a little higher, and was used by the CIA for spy missions.BC68A85C-ABE6-4FBE-9C81-A3891C485F77

On the opposite side of the pavillion was an F-14 Tomcat. Oh how I love that plane! It looks fast and mean just sitting on the ground. There are several other fascinating airplanes and helicopters on display including a P-51 Mustang and an F-18 Hornet. Over-all I found Battlefield Memorial Park to be well worth the visit. If you are ever in the area I strongly recommend you stop by and give it a look.

Meanwhile at the Airport…

As I mentioned in my last post, I am working from home these days. However, I had to stop by the office recently to pick up a few items. I thought I was prepared for what I was going to see. I wasn’t. Empty parking lots. No shuttles or buses or ubers. No traffic at all, really. And, except for a few bored agents at the ticket counter, no people. The restaurants are closed. The stores are closed too. And yet, upbeat music played over the PA system, along with routine announcements – as if nothing at all was amiss. But then there were also recorded reminders about social distancing and quarantines. Actually it was quite eerie.FE9B9EE7-B639-4F06-9C1D-AB34B85949D3

It was equally disturbing to see all the empty airplanes sitting around. A regional airline has parked nearly three dozen ERJs on the south cargo ramp. Each unused airplane represents dozens of people in the aviation and travel industries who aren’t working right now. For the airport, those idle airplanes mean no passenger parking  income, no concession income, and very little in the way of landing fees or PFCs. Things are tough all over.905AFDC8-5B18-48EC-B32A-D4E2E3DD5A55

But there is a little bit of good news in the midst of the gloom. Although the passenger airport is unbearably quiet, the cargo airport has managed to stay busy. There has been a reduction in flights by some carriers, but there’s been steady traffic from others like Cargolux and Cathay Pacific. Chartered cargo flights have actually increased. Many of those flights have been delivering medical supplies and other items that are critically needed.2DA3F260-D25E-422E-9940-A72A0B9FDF09

From a financial standpoint, the activity at the one airport cannot begin to make up for the lack of activity at the other. But right now we’ll take whatever we can get. And having those cargo planes overhead helps calm my aviation withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, my serious case of stairs truck deficiency continues.
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In Sickness and in Health

B840FCF8-EF57-4FE3-A150-E3D37EC8AA15There’a an ancient curse (of unclear origins) that says: May you live in interesting times. Sadly, times are very “interesting” right now. The impact of Covid-19 has hit the world like a steam roller.

This potentially fatal illness has shuttered businesses from beauty salons to the DMV. It has closed schools and restaurants. People have been forced into quarantine. Sports have been put on hold. Gatherings and events have been canceled. Airlines and airports (and all the businesses that support them) have been decimated. It’s awful. It’s ugly. And then things REALLY took a turn for the worse. Why? Because I’m WORKING FROM HOME. What??? Nooooooooooooo!

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I miss this sooo much!

Yes, I know – there are many people who would love to work from home right now but they can’t. I get it. But… being stuck in the spare bedroom, far away from my beloved airport is breaking my heart. It’s been a grand total of one week so far and things are NOT going well.

First of all, my new coworkers suck. They constantly want to be let outside. And back in again. And then back out. And in. They start screaming for a lunch break at 9:00am. And one of them ripped my potted plant out by the roots for the FOURTH time. Even worse, they know NOTHING about airplanes. They couldn’t care less.

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This is what should be outside my window.

Then there’s the view out the window. BORING!!! There’s not one airplane outside. Parking a large jet out front would probably not go over so well with the neighbors. However, at this point I’m seriously considering ways to sneak a bizjet or two out there. A Gulfstream would fit in my driveway, wouldn’t it?

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This is what is actually outside my window. So not OK!

And then there’s the lack of plane spotting. The only planes I can see from my garden are the ones that fly over when the 28s are in use. But it has been really cloudy so the airplane count has been an appaling 0. You read that correctly – Z.E.R.O! Even on the quietest days there is usually some activity on the airfield to watch, but now I’m deprived of even that.

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Yes, I do have a large aerial photo of an airport in my home office. Doesn’t everyone?

So what is a poor avgeek going through aviation withdrawal supposed to do? Well I’ll tell ya – it isn’t pretty. I’ve got model planes lined up by the window to try to make myself feel a little better. I staged a toy stairs truck race during my coffee break this morning. I’m monitoring Live ATC and listening to aviation podcasts. Sadly, nothing helps.

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Not as good as the real thing. Totally better than nothing

I guess all I can do is what millions of other people are doing – wait it out. One way or another Covid-19 will eventually be defeated. People will be ready to fly and the airlines will be back strong again. Until that time you can find me flipping through my absurdly-huge collection of airplane photos and dreaming of stairs trucks and jetbridges.

Author’s note: I want to give a special shout-out to the many, many people in the aviation industry who are showing up each day and putting in the hours to make sure air travel remains safe. I want you to know how very much you are appreciated. Hang in there, stay strong and be well. We will get through this.

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