Just before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, things were going well for air travel in Alabama.
2018 had been a record year for the state’s largest airports, and 2019 was even better. The Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport welcomed 3.1 million passengers in 2019, and was on track for a “record year” through the first two months of 2020. The Huntsville International Airport saw nearly 21 percent more passengers in 2019 than it did in 2018, and its highest passenger total in more than a decade. And the Mobile Regional Airport saw its most enplanements in 2019 since at least 2010.
Then the coronavirus shut all that down.
“Our lowest day was April 14,” said Candace O’Neal, Manager of PR and Marketing at the Birmingham Airport Authority. Fewer than 200 passengers flew out of Birmingham that day, she said, as air travel across the world was nearly frozen by the pandemic. For reference, BHM – the busiest airport in the state – saw an average of around 8,000 passengers per day in April of 2019.
Since that low back in April, “traffic has significantly improved,” O’Neal said. “We are starting to see more travelers come through the airport.”
But traffic in Birmingham and across the aviation industry are still well below pre-pandemic levels.
“At BHM on average, passenger traffic volumes over the past few months are between 40 to 50 percent of the normal passenger traffic volumes at BHM before the pandemic,” she said.
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In all, just 1.3 million people flew in or out of Birmingham in 2020, compared to 3.1 million in 2019.
But things continue to trend up. Passenger numbers for March of this year aren’t yet available, but O’Neal said preliminary data shows the TSA in Birmingham screened more passengers last month than it did in March of 2020, when 124,000 people flew in or out of Birmingham.
If Birmingham topped that number, then March would be the top month for air passengers since the pandemic began.
The Huntsville International Airport, much like its home city, had been growing at a blistering pace over the past few years. Between 2017 and 2019, HSV saw a 36 percent increase in air passengers – both arrivals and departures.
During that same time HSV climbed nine spots in the national rankings for enplanements – the number of people boarding a plane at a particular airport. Huntsville went from 122 to 113 on that list in just two years, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Barbie Peek, director of business development at the Port of Huntsville, said much there were a number of factors that contributed to that pre-pandemic growth, including increased capacity, new carriers and the booming North Alabama Economy.
“We had a lot of positive factors driving that growth in passenger traffic,” she said. Then the pandemic hit, and like Birmingham, the U.S. and the world, passenger traffic took a nosedive.
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Huntsville saw its annual traffic plummet by more than half in 2020. Just 560,000 people flew in or out of HSV in 2020, including a low of less than 5,000 passengers last April. Through the first two months of 2021, Huntsville saw a total of just 70,000 passengers – well below its pre-pandemic averages.
But like BHM, things at HSV may be trending in the right direction.
“Passengers are feeling more comfortable,” Peek said. “Vaccines are definitely going to encourage people to start traveling again… And when businesses come back and start having travel again, that’s really impactful to the airports, too.”
She said that as of this month, all 10 of Huntsville’s non-stop destinations from before the pandemic will be back in service.
Things were a little different in south Alabama.
Because of the type of market it serves, the Mobile Regional Airport wasn’t hit quite as hard by pandemic travel restrictions last year, but has also seen a slower recovery, according to Chris Curry, president of the Mobile Airport Authority.
“Mobile is more of a business market than a leisure market,” he said. “Leisure markets have certainly recovered quicker than most business markets, but the business markets didn’t suffer as much since last April.”
Curry projected a potential long road to recovery. He said industry experts predict a return to 2019 passenger numbers by 2023.
“That’s still down,” he said. “In a normal economy, you would have expected growth in 2020, 2021 and 2022.”
Monthly passenger data for Mobile wasn’t available as of Monday afternoon, but Mobile has seen some recovery, especially in March, according to Curry. He said there are a number of reasons to be optimistic about the future of air travel.
“Between spring break, vaccines becoming available, and certainly more states opening up businesses conferences again… The combination of that has led the airlines to be more optimistic, and the people, as well,” he said.
“The only part that’s lacking is international travel. Once that comes back, you will see a significant uptick in passenger travel, assuming there’s not significant impact with COVID,” Curry said.
O’Neal, with the Birmingham Airport Authority, said the fact that airlines have restarted many of the routes once halted during the height of the pandemic means air traffic should continue to increase. She also said the airlines are trying to make it as safe as possible, saying “multiple layers of protection” are still in place for passengers and employees.