BISMARCK — After a historic three-month drought during the coronavirus pandemic, passengers are finally beginning to fly again in North Dakota.
The months of March, April and May marked the lowest passenger volume in the history of North Dakota airports, with traffic plummeting to 95% below 2019 levels at their lowest point. But as businesses across the state open their doors again, travelers are venturing back onto commercial flights.
Passenger volume in May climbed to 86% below the month’s pre-pandemic projections, a figure that North Dakota Aeronautics Commission Executive Director Kyle Wanner interpreted as “an encouraging sign” in a statement released this week.
Even with customers tentatively returning to air travel, North Dakota’s airports may not return to their 2019 or early 2020 traffic levels anytime soon.
“Air travel in North Dakota will not be back to normal until concerns about COVID are mitigated,” Wanner told The Forum, expressing a need for airports and airlines to regain trust from customers.
The blow of the coronavirus is especially disheartening for North Dakota’s airports, which were poised for their biggest year on record. Passenger volume in February was 12% higher than the year before. Last October, Williston opened a $240 million airport in anticipation of a record-breaking 2020.
Those successes were quickly erased in the pandemic. Every airport in North Dakota saw precipitous drops in traffic, which slowly began to climb back up in late May.
Still, North Dakota’s airports have managed to ride out the worst of the pandemic damages thanks to funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress in late March.
The CARES Act set aside a potential $85 million in funding for North Dakota airports, with Fargo’s Hector International Airport, the state’s largest, securing $21.6 million, and smaller hubs like Williston and Devil’s Lake receiving $1.6 million and $1.4 million, respectively.
“With the CARES funding, we’ll at least break even,” said Hector International Airport Executive Director Shawn Dobberstein, noting Fargo’s airport has managed to retain many of its standard operations in spite of the huge setbacks in passenger traffic. Between car rental and parking revenue, typically some of the most lucrative revenue streams for airports, Dobberstein estimated that Hector is losing $500,000 a month.
By leaning on reserves and other federal funds, however, the airport plans to move forward with several multimillion dollar construction projects, including an $18 million cargo apron expansion.
The marginal resurgence North Dakota airports saw last month came mostly through leisure travel, even as statewide businesses reopened. Fargo recently reinstated flights to popular vacation destinations like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Nashville and Orlando.
The state’s smaller hubs are facing more obstacles. In Williston, Delta Airlines took a waiver from the CARES Act allowing it to suspend its flights, a major loss that could put Williston Basin International Airport on its heels for the long term.
“We don’t anticipate getting back to normal within the next twelve months,” Anthony Dudas, the airport’s director, said. “If oil and gas prices continue to rise at their current rate, we’ll get back to a new normal. I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but it’s unlikely that that will be at 2019 levels.”
Despite these losses, Wanner assured that he expects all of North Dakota’s airports to survive the drought and expressed hope that the state can get back to its 2019 heights.
“Prior to COVID hitting, our air transportation system was in incredible shape. We had the best air service that our state has ever had. We had access to the most destinations that our state has ever had, the most seat capacity that our state has ever had, and the ticket prices were actually pretty reasonable,” Wanner said. “That is our hope: That we can recover to the point where our communities can regain the air service that they had prior to the pandemic.”