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 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 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!
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.
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!