The Central Illinois Regional Airport is seeing a strong start to 2021 after COVID ravaged business in 2020.
Executive Director Carl Olson said passenger traffic is stabilizing, though it is still not back to pre-pandemic levels.
“The size of the monthly year-over-year decreases has been getting smaller,” Olson said. “I wouldn't say it's a full-blown recovery, but it's not trending down anymore. It has sort of found a foundation and it's starting to build back.”
Last April, Olson said traffic at the airport was down 97% compared with the same month the year before. But by the end of 2020, that figure had improved to a decline of about 52%. He said the airport could soon see year-over-year increases, but the true litmus test will be how air traffic compares with 2019.
Olson said there has been an industry-wide shift in the dynamics of travel because of the pandemic, as people continue to work remotely.
“Typically, in the past, CIRA has been more 50-50: about half our traffic is leisure and about half our traffic is business,” Olson said. “At this point in time, we have shifted so far the other direction, it's probably 85% or so leisure and around 15% business.”
Increased accessibility to COVID-19 vaccines, warmer weather, and cabin fever have helped, added Deputy Director of Marketing Fran Strebing. She said more people are itching to reconnect with family and friends they haven’t seen in a year, or make up for a vacation that got canceled in 2020.
“South and West seems to be where people are headed these days—where they can get outdoors, kind of more adventurous travel, going hiking,” Strebing said. “We're seeing them mostly domestic, of course.”
Strebing said Florida trips have been the most popular. That includes flights to Orlando and St. Petersburg on Allegiant or Frontier Airlines. Flights to Atlanta and Denver also have done well, she said.
Olson said despite the pivot to mostly-remote work, some amount of business travel will always be necessary. He pointed to Rivian that is expanding its plant—and growing its workforce—in Normal. Olson said the electric vehicle manufacturer brings in business travelers on a weekly basis through CIRA’s Detroit service.
For other companies, he said, it’s not a matter of “if” they resume in-person business:
“It’s more a question of how fast will the business travel come back? When will that start—and to what level?” Olson said. “Is it still going to be around a 50-50 mix for us? Or is it going to be 60% leisure and 40% business? It's too early to tell.”
Regardless of the outcome, Olson said, CIRA is well-positioned to adapt to the changing travel patterns.
“For the leisure travelers, we have two low-cost, nonstop service-providing airlines to go into those leisure places,” he said. “But we also have two mainline large global network connecting carriers that not only get people out of central Illinois to business destinations, but also bring the world and bring business people into our community.”
Strebing said regional airports like CIRA are hopeful the convenience and customer service they offer continue to attract passengers, as more and more people pack their bags. She said smaller airports offer amenities larger airports don’t.
“Free parking has been a huge thing for us,” Strebing said. “We have a smaller atmosphere than big city airports, so it's easier, it's less hassle, it's less driving. And we have both two low-fare carriers that offer flights to destinations that folks really want to go to, especially families.”
Strebing said that includes a newly-added flight to Destin, Florida on Allegiant that returns to CIRA in May.
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