Harrisburg International Airport’s leadership entered 2020 with high hopes after last year proved to be the airport’s best year on record.
While the Lower Swatara, Dauphin County-based airport also saw record numbers into January and February, any hopes for a strong year were dashed by the pandemic, which brought the number of flights leaving the airport on any given day to single digits.
“Social distancing and air travel do not go well together,” said Timothy Edwards, executive director of Harrisburg International Airport. “We started to see a rapid decline by March 16 and of course that continued through the month of March and has continued since.”
By April, 85% of flights were being canceled daily at the airport with only five to seven flights leaving the facility every day compared to the airport’s average 35 flights a day.
With close to no passengers flying out of the airport, there were no cars parked in the airport’s parking lot and revenue hit rock bottom, according to Edwards.
“There was no business,” he said. “Our concessions were shut down and you barely saw a traveler in the terminal building. It was quite depressing.”
June and July were slightly better thanks to summer vacations. HIA saw a spike in activity in leisure destinations on July 4th, but numbers fell back following news in mid-July that destinations such as Florida and Texas had become hotspots for the virus.
Edwards said the airport has seen some leisure travelers return, but it could be some time before the business sector is flying again.
“It’s the leisure traffic that decided they were ready to fly first,” he said. “Businesses aren’t prepared to release their staff for travel for fear of liability issues. We haven’t seen that come back yet.”
To reduce expenses, the airport enacted an all staff furlough for its 100 full-time equivalent employees of one day off without pay every two weeks. It also enacted a hiring freeze.
More than $4 million in capital investments and operations and management expenses were canceled, pausing a number of large projects planned for 2020, such as refurbishing of one of the airport’s 12 passenger boarding bridges and the installation of a new boiler.
Even with the pay cuts across the facility’s many departments, Edwards said the airport has predicted that it will be losing $11.5 million in revenue between April and December, mostly from the loss of revenue from parking.
Fortunately for HIA, airports across the country were awarded part of a $10 billion pool of funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to keep the country’s national airport system operating. HIA received $9.9 million through the Act, which Edwards said was vital to maintaining operations.
“That $10 million through the CARES Act will pay our debt service for 2020, which will allow us to keep our head above water through the end of this year,” he said. “That funding was tremendously important.”
The airport is currently projecting that by the end of 2020, some 330,000 passengers will have passed through the gate, a drastic change from last year’s 762,000.
The airport is currently operating at a low frequency of flights, but is offering every destination it did prior to the pandemic, except for Dallas, which Edwards said may return by October.
Harrisburg International Airport is owned by the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, which also owns Franklin County, Gettysburg and Capital City airports.