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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Flying high: Spokane International Airport records pre-pandemic passenger levels ahead of Thanksgiving travel season

Marc and Tammy Rubino were geared up Friday at Spokane International Airport for a flight to Seattle to see the Seahawks take on the Arizona Cardinals.

It’s not a trip the Rathdrum couple said they would’ve attempted last year, even if they could have, amid the various restrictions and cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic did end up nixing the Rubinos’ annual trip to Seattle to see the Boston Red Sox play the Mariners.

The Red Sox faithful weren’t denied this year, however, taking a two-week trip to Boston in September to watch a game at Fenway Park and tour a number of destinations, including Nantucket and Cape Cod.

“We’re vaccinated, we wear our masks and sanitize a lot. I feel totally comfortable traveling now,” Tammy Rubino said. “It’s really nice. That year was hard.”

Marc Rubino added, “I think more people are conscious of wearing their masks. I think most of the people got vaccines. I know a few of them haven’t, but I just feel more comfortable.”

The Rubinos were among the more than 2.4 million people who boarded or disembarked flights via major carriers at the Spokane airport from the start of the year through September, according to the airport’s latest available passenger data. That number has already eclipsed the just more than 2.1 million recorded through all of last year.

Per month, Spokane airport has averaged 272,661 enplaned and deplaned passengers from select major carriers this year. That surpassed 2020’s average (162,827), though it was still short of the monthly averages seen in 2019 (342,166) and 2018 (332,617).

Spokane airport officials as well as major airline representatives say leisure travelers are largely responsible for the climb in traffic, with business-related travel still behind. The spike has challenged airlines, such as American Airlines, which have cancelled flights because of reported staffing shortages.

But with air travel nevertheless getting back to pre-pandemic levels, at least for now, Spokane International Airport administrators have proposed an annual spending plan that reflects something of a return to normal.

Leisure travel drives demand

To date, July has been this year’s peak travel month at Spokane International Airport.

The number of passengers who traveled in or out of Spokane aboard Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, Southwest and United Airlines flights that month was 402,246, the highest seen at the airport since 2018 and a far cry from the 142,415 recorded in January 2021.

The demands are not unique to Spokane, as airline representatives pointed to industry-wide increases in leisure travel.

“There are still a significant number of global travel restrictions in place,” United spokeswoman Nicole Carriere said via email, “and major conferences/in-person business events have still not fully returned.”

Rob Schultz, chief financial officer for the Spokane International Airport, said during Thursday’s Spokane Airport Board meeting that declines from August to September traffic are typical as summer vacation ends and children return to school.

“Leisure travel is getting close to being back. Not fully back, of course,” Schultz said, “but business travel is the one that’s lagging behind right now in terms of recovery right now to pre-pandemic levels.”

Numbers recorded at Spokane International Airport have indeed dipped since peaking in July, with some airlines also attributing the decline to a surge of the coronavirus delta variant. The total traffic recorded by major airlines at Spokane airport was just more than 290,000 passengers in September, down from about 361,000 a month before.

Representatives for Alaska, American, Southwest and United could not provide demographics or other detailed passenger data specific to Spokane. Spokane International Airport officials deferred comment to the airlines for that information.

Delta representatives did not return requests for comment.

Airport budgets for new normal

The Transportation Security Administration is preparing for a Thanksgiving travel season that’s more in line with 2019 levels, according to the Associated Press.

That year a record 26 million passengers and crew passed through U.S. airport screening in the 11-day period around Thanksgiving.

Earlier this month, Spokane International Airport reopened the airport’s economy and C Concourse parking lots, as well as the shuttle bus service, after shutting them down last year to save money.

The move reflects a closer return to normalcy for airport administrators, who took the increased traffic into account as they formulated the airport’s 2022 budget.

In composing a spending plan, Schultz said administrators used 2019 figures, which have “become the new baseline for airports.”

The Spokane Airport Board voted Thursday to approve a proposed spending plan, which will go before the Spokane City Council and Spokane County commissioners for approval.

The plan includes an estimated $42.1 million in operating revenues against $32.3 million in expenses, up 12.1% and 16.4%, respectively, from 2021.

In crafting next year’s budget, airport officials considered revenue and expense projections for the current year. To date, revenues for 2021 are already 23.8% more than what administrators budgeted, while expenses are 11.6% under budget.

The airport’s income is bolstered by year-to-date rental car revenues that are 70.8% over what was budgeted.

Spokane International Airport CEO Larry Krauter said administrators are surprised by the “accelerated recovery” of local rental vehicle businesses. At the same time, Spokane’s location in relation to other popular travel destinations appears to help rental car companies amid the popularity of ride-hailing options, he said.

“If somebody’s flying in and they’re going into western Montana, or even Bonner County for that matter, they’re typically not going to be comfortable using a (ride-hailing company),” Krauter said.

“That rental car dynamic, I think, is something that is somewhat unique as a market strength for us, and we’re seeing that in the performance of rental car transactions.”

In light of the trends, Krauter said the airport is getting closer to pre-pandemic expectations with the 2022 budget.

“I think that we’ve put together a conservative budget, and that’s the best way for us to go into ’22,” he said. “We’re very comfortable with where we’re at on the forecasts that inform the ratemaking with the airlines, and we presented that to the airlines as part of the consultation process in the agreement. We do not anticipate any concerns.”

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