WICHITA — 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 a mere illusion, the result of a smaller number of air travelers grouped into a reduced number of flights.
About 15 minutes after her 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, interrupting usually inaudible recorded background music.
While flights are full, fewer than half come and go from the airport. The number of passengers flying in the U.S. has declined dramatically since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The decrease in traffic has put the financial situation of many airlines and the airports they serve in peril. For smaller airports, like the ones in Kansas, the economic impacts could lead to years of decreased flights running to fewer destinations and a dramatic drop in building improvements.
The number of passengers who boarded flights in Wichita this year has dropped 57% 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 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 not only helps increase traffic for the airport, but 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.
"My goal is to just regain the service that was lost," she said.
Losing service is an even bigger existential concern for smaller airports such as Manhattan Regional.
Before the pandemic, it had three departing and three arriving flights from both Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth. It’s now down to two each way from Dallas.
"Every other month, we’re seeing a couple of Chicago flights, but it’s not where we were before," said airport director Jesse Romo.
Similar to Wichita, the Manhattan airport is seeing year-to-date totals for boardings down 56% from last year.
Because so much of the airport’s revenue is dependent on passenger volume (passenger facility fees, parking fees, rental car commission), the decline has carved into the airport’s budget.
The Manhattan airport is currently in the middle of a parking lot improvement and expansion project. The idea was to recoup the cost through a customer fee. Now Romo isn’t sure when that fee, and the money it’s intended to generate, will kick in.
The airport is also on the hook to pay back bonds it took out to build a new terminal. A $2.1 million grant from the federal CARES Act, intended to offset the economic pain of the pandemic, is keeping the airport afloat for 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."
Both the Manhattan and Wichita airports have seen a steady increase in monthly passengers since it bottomed out in April. While still well below normal, it’s at least some glimmer of hope that people are venturing out more.
But the increase has mostly come from people going on vacation or flying to see family. In the airline industry, they’re known as leisure travelers.
But before the pandemic, the majority of traffic at both airports came from business travelers. Manhattan, in particular, relied heavily on travel to and from Fort Riley and Kansas State University.
With the increased adoption of telecommuting and tighter travel budgets for many companies, it’s a lot less clear when business travel might return, even after there’s a vaccine.
"There will be some businesses that will use Zoom," Wise said, "but if you wanted to make a sale or visit a customer or go to a conference you really have to do that in person."
Romo said industry experts don’t have a lot of answers yet, either. Some say next year is going to look a lot like this year and that 2022 is going to see a rebound. But others point to 2024 or beyond.
"I’m a pretty optimistic person by nature," he said. "But when you’re looking at so much uncertainty right now, it’s so hard to find the positives in there."
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service.