Flights at RIC down 30 percent amid cancellations

The terminal lobby at Richmond International Airport. (Todd Wright/RIC)

With a surge in cancellations reducing the number of flights into and out of Richmond International Airport, more than two years of record-breaking growth in monthly passenger traffic appears to have ended in the wake of the coronavirus.

The airport in recent days has been losing at least a third of its roughly 180 daily flights due to airline cancellations, RIC spokesman Troy Bell said Tuesday.

Bell said he didn’t have verifiable numbers reflecting recent traffic counts available but noted the drop is visibly obvious.

“You couldn’t walk the terminal without noticing that the number of passengers is considerably down,” Bell said. “There’s been a significant drop-off.”

Around 5 p.m. Tuesday, the airport’s website showed 13 flights arrived or en route from Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Orlando, Miami, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., while eight flights had been cancelled from Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, New York City, Orlando and Philadelphia. Fourteen departures were scheduled, while eight had been cancelled.

“It’s clearly not, for example, weather pattern,” Bell said of the cancellations in light of the pandemic. Despite the reduced traffic, he said flights continue to come in from and go out to the same destinations the airport had served since before the crisis.

“I think the airlines are taking a look at just what demand is from destination to destination or flight by flight and making some decisions based on that,” Bell said. “I don’t think that there are any destinations that we previously had that are not served to some extent now, at least the destinations that had daily service.”

Cancelled flights were never uncommon, but Bell said the uptick in recent days has been significant, resulting in what he said likely would turn out to be “a large percentage” drop in passenger traffic.

RIC had recorded seven years of consecutive monthly passenger traffic growth, with the last 28 months up to January surpassing records set the same months in previous years. January’s tally of 320,991 was 8.2 percent above January 2019, contributing to a 5.5 percent bump in annual traffic seven months into fiscal year 2020.

Fueled by the passenger traffic increase, the airport’s operating revenue totaled $4.4 million in January, above budget by 9 percent, according to monthly financials. Revenue year-to-date totaled $31.7 million, while operating expenses for the month totaled $2.2 million and year-to-date expenses reached $15.7 million.

Richmond International Airport’s operating revenue totaled $4.4 million in January. (Courtesy RIC)

‘Critical infrastructure’

While the federal government has imposed restrictions on international travel, and Gov. Ralph Northam has halted official travel outside Virginia by state employees, Bell said airports remain operational because they need to transport not only people but also cargo.

“Part of it is the airport serves as critical infrastructure,” he said. “We’re familiar probably mostly with the passenger side, but we support the community also with what can happen on the air cargo side, so critical supplies can move in and out of the region that way.”

The airport’s latest traffic counts may not be known for some time, as its governing body, the Capital Region Airport Commission, has cancelled its monthly meeting that was scheduled next Tuesday due to social distancing requirements. February’s traffic numbers were to be presented at that meeting, while the numbers for this month would be presented in April.

Bell said reduced revenue from decreased traffic likely would require changes in airport operations.

“While there is no blueprint, you look at everything in terms of essential versus non-essential,” Bell said in an email. “The Capital Region Airport Commission is financially stable, but it is prudent to consider changes in light of (hopefully temporary) decreased activity at Richmond International Airport.”

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