Tri-Cities Airport holds line as traffic falls by more than half

There is no way to dress it up: The Covid-19 pandemic battered – and continues to batter – the Tri-Cities Airport’s business.

Its years-long record of passenger growth collapsed in 2020, which recorded 188,959 boardings, 57% fewer than 2019.

The news was bad, but Airport Director Buck Taft said he felt duty bound to report the numbers, as he does each year.

April was the darkest month, with 95% fewer passengers than normal. The few who did travel in the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic were greeted by a vast and empty parking lot, shuttered restaurants and few people in the terminal.

In real numbers, an average of 58 people flew out of Pasco each day in April, down from a daily average of 1,100 the previous April.

Traffic has revived, but for Taft, the mission is to survive 2021 while business is half of normal. The airport’s operating budget is just over $6 million.

It got a boost thanks to a $5.9 million payout from the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security) Act. The grant is covering the airport’s bond debt, a cost normally borne by passenger fees. A second payment is expected but had not been announced in mid-February.

Cargo traffic increased by 9%, driven by a 38% increase posted by UPS Inc. The airport receives landing fees for cargo flights, but it is a minor source of revenue and the uptick will not affect the budget. Still, it was a positive trend, Taft noted.

It shelved all capital projects for 2021, including Taft’s longtime dream of replacing tired landscaping at the terminal entrance.

Those and other cuts set the airport up to break even in 2021 if it sees 55% of the 438,000 boardings it tallied in 2019, before the pandemic. The financial picture, he said, is “fine.” Not great, but “fine.”

The 55% goal is a reasonable one, Taft believes.

In March, United Airlines will restore one of its pre-pandemic two daily flights to Minneapolis and Alaska Airlines is expected to resume its daily schedule of six or seven flights.

United cut its San Francisco flight and did not initiate its much-touted Chicago flight in 2020. However, both are listed as “suspended” on United’s schedule, a sign it has not dropped them completely.

In late May, Allegiant, catering to budget-minded leisure travelers, will initiate a direct flight to San Diego International Airport, with two flights a week. Introductory one-way fares are listed at $59, it said in a Feb. 9 announcement that promotes San Diego as a vacation destination.

Taft said Allegiant is a sign of the times. The leisure-focused business fared better in 2020 than its business-focused peers.

Allegiant boardings fell 38% at Pasco in 2020.

United, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines all fell by more than half.

“It’s a tough year,” Taft said.

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