Fresno Yosemite International Airport image via City of Fresno.
Written by Frank Lopez
Early into the Covid-19 pandemic air travel revenue hit the ground, but locally and nationally, air travel is beginning to take off.
With travelers canceling their trips due to fears of the virus, cancellation of countless events in both entertainment and trade industries, and travel bans in the U.S. and abroad, its no surprise that the airline industry and airports hit some turbulence.
At the end of April, major airlines received a $25 billion bailout from the Trump administration to prop up the devastated industry.
In California, airport travel took a hard plunge beginning in April. According to the August 2020-California Airport Passenger Traffic Report, there were 17.9 million air travelers in January, a 2.4% increase from January 2019.
In April, the number of air travelers had dropped to 739,133. The number of monthly air travelers did begin to climb back up after April, and for August, the latest month with available data in the report, 4.8 million travelers took to the skies both for domestic and international travel.
Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) has been seeing an upward trend in travelers in previous years and started out the year with strong numbers.
In January, total numbers for enplaned passengers for FAT was 78,877. The grand total for enplaned passengers in August was 37,861.
Kevin Meikle, director of Aviation for FAT, said that the airport hit its lowest point in April, with a 93% drop in passengers getting on and off the planes.
Meikle said that an increase in travelers didn’t just rocket up in June, but was taking place steadily month after month. The airport also has a history of recovering faster than other airports in the country.
“Some of the larger airports are still feeling the impact of this pandemic more so than we are,” Meikle said. “We are heading in the right path.”
Airlines are looking into re-staking their route structures to capture market share in areas where it may be lacking, which includes the Central Valley.
Airlines have also been offering new destination points out of FAT. In September, Alaska Airlines started offering an LAX service for the first time. In November, Delta is also starting an LAX service, and Volaris will be offering a Mexico City service.
According to industry report by FitchRatings, North American Aviation Update: Airports and Airlines, FAT “has fared better than most peers despite its small enplanement base and geographic concentration.”
The airport has been on an upward trend since 2010, and in that nearly 10-year span, it has upped its number of passengers from 1.2 million to 2 million — a nearly 70% increase, Meikle said. That was likely to continue until the pandemic hit.
Though it wont be equal to what the airport saw last year, the airlines are ramping up their flight schedules for the holiday season, with the schedule plans resembling ones of 2019, Meikle said.
Although their were some drops in airfreight volumes overall, air freight was much less impacted by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic than passenger traffic. All regions besides North America reported significant loses in airfreight, according to a media release from Airports Council International.
In June, North America reported its total airfreight volume came back in positive, with a 3.9% increase compared to June 2019.
At FAT, Meikle said, FedEx and UPS operating out of the airport haven’t had their schedules change, and he guesses they would say they’ve been busier than ever.
Air cargo volume at the Visalia Municipal Airport did see a negative trend at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Katherine Bales, airport superintendent for the City of Visalia, said that they did see a very large drop in general aviation operations once the virus hit.
The amount of traffic the airport is seeing is measured by gallons of fuel used. On average it sees 285,000 gallons of fuel operations per year, but in April there was a 74% drop in fuel sales.
Though Bales didn’t see any layoffs in her office, there were employees under the general services department for the city that were let go.
FedEx and UPS also operate out of the Visalia airport and have maintained their schedules since the start pandemic, Bales said, and there hasn’t been either a negative or positive change.
Bales did say that FedEx did increase their operations at other airports because Visalia couldn’t accommodate larger aircraft.
Private aircraft operations also saw a drop. Contract jet fuel saw an 80% drop in April alone.
“In terms of general aviation, so far we have been very fortunate that we’ve seen an uptick in getting things back to usual, it is a little bit lower than what you would expect in previous years, but it is nowhere near the amount of hit that the commercial service airports or the airlines have received,” Bales said.
Wheels off the bus
The airlines weren’t the only ones in the transportation industry that suffered during the pandemic, the motorcoach industry is under the bus as well.
In an April report from the American Bus Association, motorcoach companies reported that between 80% and 95% of motorcoach trips have been cancelled or are just not being booked due to the pandemic.
Charter business, which depends on tours and conferences, has seen their bookings cleared since April.
Overall, the industry would generate 14.2 billion less in sales.
Pat Burriel, co-owner of Panna Charter, a small operation charter bus company in Fresno, said the industry is already plagued by the California Air Resources Board with new regulations. The pandemic has been further devastating.
Burriel opened the business with his wife about four years ago, and said that business was going good since they opened. This year also saw a good amount of business until the pandemic hit.
Panna Charter provides a lot of tours for senior citizens all over the country, including states such as Missouri and New York, but that revenue has dried up. It also provides services for schools for field trips, and with the schools shifting to online learning, field trips have been cancelled as well.
Burriel said he wishes the motorcoach industry would receive a bailout as the airlines did, and fears that many of the “mom and pop” bus companies could go out of business in the near future.
Burriel estimates that their one bus has lost over $100,000 in revenue this year.
In a normal year, the holiday season gets booked for tours, but that activity has come to a halt.
“We have people who want to get out and get away just for the day, but because I can only put 25 people on a bus, I have to charge them double, and that’s money a lot of people don’t have because people are out of work or don’t have money to supplement their trips,” Burriel said.