CINCINNATI — It may take the wide distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine before many Tri-Staters and travelers across the country are ready to fly again, according to airline industry leaders.
More than 500 experts are attending the Boyd Group International Aviation Forecast Summit taking place in downtown Cincinnati this week. The impact of COVID-19 and how to rebound was an obvious focus, but there was also talk of a widely available vaccine and how that could affect travelers.
“We need customers to be able to be vaccinated, and then they’ll feel comfortable,” said Daniel Shurz, senior vice president, commercial at Frontier Airlines.
The meeting was a hybrid of in-person and virtual attendees. The Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport and Cincinnati Convention and Visitor's Bureau won the bid to host the 25th annual event about a year-and-a-half ago.
“We’ve been planning all this time. Then, of course, the pandemic comes along, and it’s just been a work in progress on how to make sure we can do this in a safe, responsible way,” said Candace McGraw, CEO of the Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Some say the summit was a way to show that travel by air, even for business, is possible. The meeting included masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing – although the number of virtual participants outnumbered the in-person participants, according to some attendees.
“I think airports and airplanes have never been safer." said McGraw. "And now we’re trying to show folks that you can come to a destination and see things, travel and meet with people and you do it in a responsible, safe manner.”
Some airlines and airports think one possible way to increase the sense of security for travelers is offering COVID-19 testing before boarding. Several airports and airlines have started doing it, like Tampa, which will test arriving and departing passengers. Summit attendees discussed the idea.
“Our world trade association is advocating strongly for on-site testing, etc. and I’m anxious to learn more about it," said McGraw. "And then we’ll see how that evolves and what role we should play in that at CVG.”
McGraw said CVG has seen heavy losses due to low travel numbers in 2020. After seeing a record 9.1 million passengers travel through the international airport in 2019, only 3 million Tri-Staters are projected to catch a flight through the airport this year.
“Working with our airline partners, we’ve done a forecast into 2020 and we probably, we’re budgeting and anticipating, about four-and-a-half million passengers next year,” said McGraw.
The translation into dollars means losses in the millions. This year, CVG is projected to lose $45 million in revenues. Next year, the number is an additional $40 million. McGraw said the airport did receive $43 million through the CARES Act.
“We went into this pandemic with a good cash position. We had a good bit of cash on hand that could sustain us. But that cash took us over ten years to build,” said McGraw.
The strength of CVG's cargo hub is the one bright spot for the airport.
“We have had five consecutive year-over-year growth in cargo, and this year is no different. We’re currently up about 14%,” said McGraw.
Overall, most airports and airlines are seeing major drops in passengers. Shurz said Frontier has started seeing some uptick in travel to certain destinations, like Florida, Colorado and Las Vegas.
“We’re not close to back to normal, but we at Frontier are running about 60% of last year’s capacity right now,” said Shurz.
He believes there are multiple actions that need to happen to get people back on airplanes. In addition to cleaning and sanitation, destinations also have to be open with safety protocols. But for many, a vaccine is necessary, he said.
“There’s a portion of the customer base who are at higher risk or perceived they're at higher risk,” he said.
That's why a vaccine would make a difference, although the timeline for a vaccine remains uncertain.
“It takes one more impediment out of the way of deciding to travel,“ Shurz said.