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PANDEMIC IMPACTS | AIR TRAVEL

Hardest hit in state: Dane County Regional Airport saw biggest pandemic drop in passengers, study finds

Dane Co Airport

The Dane County Regional Airport is rebounding after seeing the biggest drop in passengers last year of any other major Wisconsin airport amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Dane County Regional Airport had the biggest drop in passengers last year of any other major Wisconsin airport, coming in nearly 15% worse than the national average, a new study found. But data from 2022 suggests the airport has already begun to make a healthy comeback from the doldrums of the pandemic.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum study, which compared 2021 passenger volume to 2019, found that pandemic travel struggled to rebound throughout the upper Midwest at airports such as Milwaukee, Chicago O’Hare and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Yet Dane County was hardest hit.

Dane County had about 39% fewer commercial passengers last year compared to the year before the COVID-19 pandemic. Milwaukee Mitchell, the closest major air hub, had 33% fewer. Nationwide, airports had 25% fewer passengers last year, even as vaccination became widely available and the virus saw its ebbs and flows.

Much of that was spurred by drop-offs in business travel around the country even as leisure travel boomed, which had a disproportionate impact on the Dane County Regional Airport, said Michael Riechers, an airport spokesperson.

“With (Dane County’s) market having such a large business presence, the pandemic affected our volume in a different way compared to other Wisconsin airports,” Riechers said.

“Even today, business travel is recovering at a slower rate than leisure travel,” he added.

Last year’s data has major implications for economic and population growth in the Madison area, which is the fastest growing in Wisconsin.

The area’s health care information and biotech industries rely on a national and even international client base, said Mark Sommerhauser, a researcher with the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

“The ability to be able to get clients or go visit clients out of the Dane County Regional Airport, across the country and across the globe, is really crucial to those businesses being able to grow,” Sommerhauser said.

“Having that air travel not just be online, but be at full-steam-ahead is truly important,” he said.

Some recovery

But Dane County’s passenger data from this year already shows a steady comeback.

March’s passenger volume had risen 94% compared to the previous year, according to airport data. Additionally, the number of flyers in the first three months of the year was up 109% compared the first three months of 2021.

“We’re confident that (Dane County’s) recovery will continue to strengthen,” Riechers said.

How much of that rebound will get a boost from increased business travel remains an open question.

Deloitte Development, a private consulting firm, concluded in a 2022 travel outlook that “even assuming the best possible COVID-19 outcomes, corporate travel in 2022 is unlikely to reach or even near 2019 levels,” a reality largely driven by a permanent shift to remote work in large swaths of the economy.

Leisure travel

Researchers found that sunnier destinations in the South and Southwest have accounted for much of the leisure travel that has sustained airports.

Wisconsin’s airports are no different. Milwaukee airport officials told researchers that their 2021 service to Florida was the largest on record. At Dane County, the airport started running its first ever nonstop flights to Miami.

“Our winter Florida routes were very very popular,” Riechers said. “They were some of the best numbers we’ve ever seen.”

Other data reveals that many of Wisconsin’s smaller airport braved the pandemic far better than their more massive counterparts.

Appleton only saw an 8% drop in passengers last year, while La Crosse fell by 15%, and Rhinelander by 3.6%.

The industry leaning on leisure travel likely accounts for this, Sommerhauser said, along with more antipathy to the threat of the virus in smaller population centers.

“It certainly is possible that certain differences and attitudes toward COVID might have played a role in people’s willingness to get on an airplane,” he remarked.

Since air carriers control how many flights go to different destinations, the Dane County Regional Airport’s chief marketing goal has been convincing the public of air travel’s safety, Riechers added.

“What we tried to do as an airport is reassure the traveling public that this is safe,” he said. “When you’re ready to travel, we’re ready to have you.

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