A year into the pandemic, RIC’s passenger traffic numbers are taking off

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

Having passed the 12-month mark since the start of the pandemic, year-to-year traffic counts at Richmond International Airport are starting to look less lopsided, with the numbers showing signs of rebuilding.

RIC reports that passenger traffic in March totaled just over 170,370, a decrease of 6.2 percent from March 2020, when travel restrictions started going into place amid the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

While the traffic count appears lower than at the start of the pandemic, last month’s numbers actually indicate some positive gains because, in the first half of March 2020, planes were still in the air.

“It’s a great indicator,” said Troy Bell, director of marketing and air service development for the Capital Region Airport Commission, which owns and operates RIC.

“A year ago, really, the bottom fell out a couple weeks into the month, and you could see that sharp downward curve,” Bell said. “This year you see a steady increase, and literally the two lines crossed in March.”

A flight departing Richmond International Airport. (Photos curtesy of RIC)

In March 2020, RIC counted 181,634 passengers, essentially representing the first half of the month when operations were still normal. Last month’s numbers represent the whole month — and mark the first month in which they’re not being compared to pre-pandemic levels, resulting in a significantly less drastic year-over-year change.

In March 2020, RIC’s passenger counts were down about half from the previous year, reflecting the pandemic’s mid-month impact. The following month, with travel restrictions’ impacts fully felt, passenger traffic at RIC dropped a whopping 96 percent from April 2019.

The airport’s numbers have been increasing little by little since then, as restrictions eased and more planes got off the ground. By the end of 2020, passenger traffic for the year totaled 1.7 million, a decrease of about 61 percent from 2019’s record of 4.37 million. Yearly operating revenue reached $14.22 million, about $3.4 million below budget and $13 million below 2019’s total of $27.32 million.

So far in fiscal year 2021, which ends in June, passenger traffic is down nearly 63 percent, according to a report presented Tuesday to RIC’s Capital Region Airport Commission.

An Amazon Air cargo plane at Richmond International Airport.

At the same time, cargo traffic, which has been a bright spot over the course of the pandemic, has continued to be up, with total cargo increasing nearly 45 percent in March 2021 compared to a year before. For the fiscal year so far, cargo is up just over 30 percent.

With the pandemic a year in, the year-to-year statistics are showing other areas of improvement at RIC compared to the same time in 2020. The commission’s report notes that, last month, 24 flights were canceled, compared to 860 flights nixed in March 2020.

And earlier this month, RIC marked the start of Southwest Airlines’ expanded service to Chicago Midway International Airport. The new nonstop flights started April 12, and the airline is slated to start new Richmond-to-Denver service May 9.

Also next month, JetBlue plans to resume flights to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, while United Airlines’ route to Houston and Delta’s Minneapolis route are scheduled to restart in June.

Officials held a ribbon-cutting this month marking the start of nonstop flights to Chicago Midway from RIC. (RIC photo)

Bell said flights to cities in Florida have seen the most traffic in recent months, with spring break travel playing a factor. He said business travel to Northeast destinations remains slow to recover.

“There’s not very much business demand for New York and Boston, and a couple routes for us remain suspended,” he said, referring to the Houston and Minneapolis routes set to return in June.

Nonetheless, Bell said March’s numbers bode well for traffic counts rising the rest of the year.

“When we look at April numbers, we see that continuing,” he said. “Our traffic for April will surpass what we reported in March, and we hope that’s the case for many months going forward.”

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