'Signs of hope' on the horizon at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport after year-plus dip in air travel

COVID-19 precautions such as a masking requirement remain in place at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Courtesy Austin-Bergstrom International Airport)
COVID-19 precautions such as a masking requirement remain in place at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Courtesy Austin-Bergstrom International Airport)

COVID-19 precautions such as a masking requirement remain in place at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Courtesy Austin-Bergstrom International Airport)

While the number of passengers passing through Austin-Bergstrom International Airport each month remains well below pre-pandemic levels, a continuing increase in COVID-19 vaccinations, expanding flight options and the persistent appeal of Austin and its economy could all signal an airport poised for recovery through 2021.

"Seeing the strong economy of the city of Austin and the recovery efforts that’s happening, what we’re seeing is some initial signs of hope," Austin-Bergstrom Executive Director Jacqueline Yaft said May 13.

Yaft highlighted several aspects of the airport's operations which she said could lay the groundwork for a surge in travel this summer and beyond during a media briefing on mobility in Austin. Even with several potential positives on the horizon, however, the airport still remains in a passenger traffic dip that has now stretched well over one year.

Following the official designation of a global pandemic, Austin-Bergstrom's passenger volume plummeted 96.61% from April 2019 to April 2020. Monthly counts have gradually increased since that point, and the most recent available data covering March 2021 shows the airport surpassed its March 2020 traffic by 4.94%.

This March's 735,270 passengers passing through Austin-Bergstrom represents just over half of the 1,463,016 people recorded in March 2019. Still, Yaft said several operations changes, including the recent arrival of Central Texas's only nonstop Honolulu flights, new American Airlines routes and the upcoming launch of Allegiant Travel Co.'s base at the airport could facilitate additional growth alongside increasing traveler demand.

And while the airport has seen an uptick in bookings in the short-term, Yaft also said some uncertainty over the sustainability of current travel trends remains, especially in relation to protocols surrounding vaccinations, possible vaccination passports, and the opening of international borders.

"What we’re looking at is still working with the airlines to understand what that looks [like] beyond the summer of 2021, and what that leisure demand is going to look like eventually, and also what will be the status of the business travelers and the international travelers as more news [comes] about the health and about COVID-19," she said.

For the time being, Yaft said COVID-19 precautions such as required masking and enhanced cleaning remain in place at Austin-Bergstrom alongside amenities such as touch-free options for ordering at airport restaurants and airlines' check-in process in use since 2020.

And despite remaining entrenched in an extended period of depressed air travel, the airport is still planning for more rapid expansion in the city's population and its own traffic with the extension of its master plan—with some modifications.

"Prior to COVID, AUS was growing at 8%, which is one of the highest in the country. ... We definitely need to match that growth with our airport expansion and develop our program," Yaft said. "What we’re going to do is implement the same program but we’re phasing it differently as to match, one is the timing of the recovery, and also the finances of the revenue that we’ll be recovering.”


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