INDIANAPOLIS — Six months after the pandemic all but shut down commercial air travel in the United States, Indianapolis International Airport is in the midst of what will be a long recovery.
"We're up to about 35% of the numbers we saw in 2019, and although it's going to be a very long recovery and a transformative time for our industry, it's going to recover eventually," said Mario Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Indianapolis Airport Authority. He hopes to see an increase by the end of the year that will put travel at about 45% of 2019 levels.
Right now, 35% looks pretty good considering air travel in Indianapolis fell about 95% during the early weeks of the pandemic, a period where the terminal looked like a ghost town.
Rodriguez spoke on a weekday afternoon from the ticketing area of the airport where travelers found no lines to speak of when checking in. That's because there are far fewer flights than pre-pandemic. Consider these numbers:
- September 2020: 67 daily flights to 29 non-stop destinations.
- September 2019: 139 daily flights to 39 non-stop destinations.
Rodriguez said it may take three to five years for the airline industry to recover. "You know we may end up between 2024 and 2026 recovering. And also, it is transforming, so the industry, although it will still be part of the fabric of society here in the United States, it may be a little different."
Recent headlines show the trauma airlines are facing:
- United Airlines laying off 36,000 employees, or 45% of workforce in October.
- Delta Airlines reducing workforce by 20% through buyouts and early retirement.
- American Airlines eliminating 40,000 jobs in October — some through buyouts and early retirement.
Airlines have parked hundreds of planes, over 50 of them at one point in Indianapolis. 16 are at the airport now.
Since March, Indianapolis International and the airlines have received millions of dollars in federal assistance. "I highly expect the federal government to be able to provide more money both to the airports and especially to the airlines, because if you think about, the airlines, whether held in the public or private sector, are part of our national transportation," said Rodriguez. "So eventually, the federal government will be giving the airlines more funds for them to maintain solvency."
But it's not at all clear that Congress will pass an additional COVID-19 aid package before the November elections. Without additional help, the airlines can begin their job reductions in October.
Back at the airport, an afternoon flight from Florida was arriving. "This was my second time flying," said Elana Williams of Gainesville, Florida. "It was real nice and comfortable and very relaxed. I mean, we just kept out masks up, so we enjoyed ourselves, nice flight in and out."
Like Williams, Florida resident Christie Reid was visiting relatives in Indiana. Her first flying trip since the outbreak of COVID-19 went well, despite the "inconvenience" of having to wear a mask the entire time. Her advice to others who might be hesitant to get on a plane in the middle of a pandemic: "You should not be as worried as you think as long as you're wearing your mask and abiding by all the rules, shouldn't have a problem," she said.
Airports and airlines have taken numerous steps to guard against COVID-19. "Well, you're going to see shields at the (ticket) desks and they are obviously wearing masks," said Rodriguez referring to tickets agents and all other airport employees. "We're giving away masks for free. If you don't have a mask, take one, take multiple masks for your trip. You're going to see signs and lines for social distancing."
Even planes "social distance" at their gates, giving passengers more room to spread out in boarding areas.
And while overall, 2020 has been a disaster for the airline industry, there are some positive signs in Indianapolis. A Southwest flight to St. Louis was added in August, and new flights to Memphis, Ft. Lauderdale, Ft. Myers and Cancun are coming.
At the same time, Indianapolis has lost its non-stop to Paris for now, and Rodriguez said it will be a challenge to get it back. "At the present time there are not enough passengers to fill an international flight," he said. "And secondly, part of the non-stop point-to-point was because the hubs were so saturated back then that it made sense to have a flight point-to-point. Now, they have enough capacity in the hub. So it's going to be doubly challenging."
Because of the federal assistance and budget reserves, Rodriguez said Indianapolis International is on sound financial footing.
Rodriguez dealt with a different sort of disaster 15-years ago, as deputy director of the New Orleans airport when Hurricane Katrina struck. About lessons learned from one natural and one public health disaster he said,"What it does teach you is that change in ever occurring and at times like this, change occurs more and more rapidly."