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Austin's Airport Prepares For Uptick In Holiday Travelers As It Awaits Industry Rebound

A sign at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport displays health precautions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A sign at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport posted during the beginning of the pandemic displays health precautions.

Despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health authorities, officials at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport expect an increase in passengers during the holiday travel season.

Like a lot of things for the aviation industry this year, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the exact number.

Unlike at other airports, the holidays are typically not the busiest time at Austin-Bergstrom. Officials expect that to be different this year since events like ACL and the Formula One race have been canceled.

At the same time, airlines are reporting an uptick in cancelations and fewer bookings.

​“Whether or not to travel, we know, is a personal decision,” said Mandy McClendon, a spokesperson for the airport. “On the busiest day since the pandemic, we had about 11,000 outbound folks. On the lowest, we had about 500. And no matter how many travelers come through our doors, we take the same precautions.”

Those precautions include increased sanitation and disinfection procedures, and ubiquitous signs about masks and social distancing. The airport also closed its economy parking lots and lowered its garage pricing, so passengers won’t have to get on shuttles.

Disruption And Recovery

The travel season comes as the aviation industry struggles to recover from the pandemic, one of the biggest disruptions to the industry in decades.

“It's almost like we rewound the clock and went back to the '70s, if you look at total industry demand,” Dave Harvey, vice president of Southwest Business, said during a discussion hosted by the Austin Chamber of Commerce on Friday. “So we’ve been punched in the gut, we got back on the mat. And this is all about how do you get off the mat and make sure we're meeting the needs of our customers.”

Southwest has the largest share of passenger traffic in Austin, Harvey said, and that’s expected to grow. But he says he doesn’t expect traffic to rebound significantly until 2022, and a return to 2019 levels isn’t expected until 2023 or 2024.

A rebound couldn't come soon enough for the airport, which saw its ambitious expansion plans put on hold because of the pandemic.

“None of our carriers wanted to back off on the gates that they use today or the space. None of the carriers wanted to pull back on any of the routes,” Jacqueline Yaft, the airport's executive director, said. “I think Austin is going to be very strong for all our national carriers.”

But in the meantime, the airport is still trying to work with its vendors to help preserve jobs, while hoping to get more federal relief.

“It is too soon to really anticipate what the financial picture will look like going into the next calendar year,” McClendon said. “However, if there are many more months of significantly reduced passenger demand, we do anticipate that additional assistance, federal assistance, will be necessary not only for us, but for the entire industry.”

Got a tip? Email Samuel King at samuel@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelKingNews.

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