WICHITA, Kansas —Katie Hansen’s recent trip from Columbus, Ohio, through Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Wichita felt pretty familiar.
Sure, several restaurants sat closed, but O’Hare looked busy, and her flights were full.
“If people didn’t have masks on,” Hansen said, “there would be nothing different.”
The sense of bustling airports is an illusion, resulting from a smaller number of air travelers grouped into a reduced number of flights.
About 15 minutes after Hansen’s flight arrived and the last of the passengers had been picked up, Dwight D. Eisenhower Airport in Wichita was once again empty — the sounds of public service announcements echoing through a mostly empty terminal.
While flights are full, overall traffic is half of what it was before the coronavirus pandemic.
The decrease in traffic has put many airlines’ financial situations and the airports they serve in peril. For smaller airports, like many in the Midwest, the economic impacts could lead to years of decreased flights running to fewer destinations.
The number of passengers who boarded flights in Wichita this year has dropped 55% compared to 2019. At its lowest point in April, when monthly traffic was down 95% compared to the year before, there was a day when only 63 people flew out of the airport.
In any other year, the Wichita airport expects to see about 2,300 passengers a day, and a lot more during peak season.
“When no one is traveling, we’re not generating revenue,” said Valerie Wise, air service and business development manager at Eisenhower Airport.
The decreased revenue has led to slashed budgets. It’s also led to layoffs.
With significantly fewer passengers, the airport had to get rid of its customer courtesy staff. The parking lot operator closed the park-and-ride lot and laid off some drivers. And the Aviator Cafe on the main floor of the terminal is still closed.
“The outlook was really good,” Wise said, “until COVID hit.”
Before the pandemic, the Wichita airport had seen seven straight years of growth. During that time, it had also added several new destinations and planned to add seven more in the next five years.
Wise said adding destinations helps increase traffic for the airport and is key to attracting new businesses to the area.
But now, the airport hopes just to keep the routes it has. There are currently only 22 daily departures from the airport, down from about 35 at the beginning of the year.
Losing service is an even bigger existential concern for smaller airports such as Manhattan Regional in Kansas.
Before the pandemic, it had three daily departing and three arriving flights from both Chicago and Dallas-Ft. Worth. It’s now down to two each way from Dallas and even fewer from Chicago.
“Every other month, we’re seeing a couple of Chicago flights, but it’s not where we were before,” said Airport Director Jesse Romo.
Because so much of the airport’s revenue depends on passengers paying for parking, facility fees and rental car commissions, the decline has carved into the airport’s budget.
A $2.1 million grant from the federal CARES Act, intended to offset the economic pain of the pandemic, is keeping the airport afloat this year. But uncertainty about the future has Romo worried.
“If there isn’t additional funding that’s passed and we have this kind of environment that is long-lasting,” he said, “there’s going to be some difficult choices ahead.”
Several other airports are feeling the pinch of losing flights too. In July, Lincoln, Nebraska, became one of 11 airports Delta Airlines pulled out of. The loss left the airport with only a couple of daily flights from United Airlines.
“That temporary suspension was supposed to go through October,” said Lincoln airport spokeswoman Rachel Barth. “And we have not been given any indication that they will be coming back, at least this year.”
For the year, traffic in Lincoln is down more than 65%.
Despite all that, the Lincoln airport recently announced a renovation project of its more than 50-year-old terminal, including the addition of two new gates.
Barth said while it might seem strange to take on a project like this right now, it actually might work out better. With fewer passengers and one less carrier, they’ll be able to do construction without too many interruptions.
“It doesn’t guarantee that all of the sudden we’re going to get an American or that Delta’s going to come running back because we’re getting a new terminal, because they don’t really care about that,” she said. “But it does set you up for success.”
The new gates and renovated terminal could help attract a budget carrier, catering to leisure travelers, who have been the driver of a steady nationwide increase in the number of travelers since July.
But even if Lincoln manages to add more leisure travelers, Barth says like most airports, the majority of their passengers will always be business travelers.
More companies have tightened budgets and adopted telecommuting, so even after a coronavirus vaccine, it’s not clear when business travel will return.
And industry experts disagree. Some say next year will look a lot like this year and that 2022 will see a rebound, but others point to 2024 or beyond.
“I’m a pretty optimistic person by nature,” Manhattan’s Jesse Romo said. “But when you’re looking at so much uncertainty right now, it’s so hard to find the positives in there.”
This story was produced as part of the Midwest Newsroom, which aims to blend local, regional and national coverage in creative ways to reach new and diverse audiences in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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