2020 was the worst year for the Dayton airport. Will 2021 be better?

A traveler leaves the Dayton International Airport on Monday Dec. 7, 2020.
Caption
A traveler leaves the Dayton International Airport on Monday Dec. 7, 2020.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

The most difficult year in the history of the Dayton International Airport is coming to a close, but improving passenger traffic and promising vaccine candidates offer a ray of hope that 2021 will see growth and recovery.

Passenger boardings at the airport declined as much as 95% early in the pandemic, and PSA Airlines and concession vendors cut more than 300 jobs at the facility this year.

The airport, however, managed to add service to two new Florida markets, and private employers around the facility significantly increased their payrolls.

The airport hopes to add new jobs and one new destination in 2021, and it will focus on increasing capacity, said Gil Turner, Dayton’s director of aviation.

Some business leaders said they would like to see new air service to the East or West Coasts to places such as Boston or Los Angeles.

“To say that 2020 has been a challenge for this airport and even for the aviation industry is an understatement,” Turner said. “We have dealt with a global pandemic like never seen before that has touched every country, every industry and every person.”

ExploreAirfare, flights down dramatically at Dayton airport
A passenger plane flies out of the Dayton International Airport Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. MARSHALL GORBY/STAFF
Caption
A passenger plane flies out of the Dayton International Airport Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. MARSHALL GORBY/STAFF

Credit:

Credit:

Air travel demand collapsed in March after the governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order and large parts of the economy screeched to a halt because of the outbreak.

Enplanements at the airport declined more than 95% in April and 88% in May from 2019, as business and leisure travel trips dried up.

Through the end of October, passenger traffic was down more than 61% compared to last year.

But after falling to record and once-unthinkable lows, monthly enplanements have increased in five out of the last six months.

Pre-coronavirus, the airport operated about 50 to 55 daily departures, but airlines cut capacity to better reflect the demand, and there are now about 23 to 28 daily departures, said Linda Hughes, Dayton’s air service manager.

Some forecasts expect air travel demand will remain depressed in 2021, compared to pre-pandemic levels, but passenger traffic should continue to rebound.

The health of the industry will largely depend on the health of the country and whether the coronavirus continues to rapidly spread or if it can be brought under control by vaccines or other interventions.

Job losses

The Dayton airport lost an estimated 323 jobs through the end of the third quarter, officials said.

Over the summer, Dayton-based PSA Airlines announced it was cutting 259 jobs at the airport, including pilots (156 workers), flight attendants (62) and dispatchers (13).

Not long after, the airlines announced it was also laying off 47 maintenance, engineering and other technical and administrative workers.

Concession vendors also cut staff due to reduced demand.

Employment at the airport facility has declined, but private employment around it has been a bright spot.

NorthPoint Development has constructed and opened six massive warehouse, distribution and industrial facilities on airport property, and it plans to build two more nearby in 2021.

Thousands of people work at the facilities, and multiple tenants and occupants, like Chewy and Crocs, have seen strong job growth and continue to hire.

After failing to meet its goal of adding new air service in 2019, the Dayton airport added two new markets this year: Miami and Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

The Destin-Fort Walton Beach flight, operated by Allegiant Air, was seasonal service Thursdays to Sundays, and the average passenger loads were about 70%, airport officials said.

The Miami flight, run by American Airlines, is a seasonal service that flies on Saturdays only. The aircraft on average was about half full.

The new flights did well in this challenging environment because they are popular leisure destinations, Turner said.

“They really helped us get through and weather the storm,” he said.

The airport would like to add at least one new market next year, Turner said, and it has been working with the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce and some local employers to identify potential destinations.

Airport officials said they plan to focus on new leisure market opportunities in the short-term and strategic business destinations and a diverse carrier mix in the longer run.

The Dayton airport is one of the most valuable regional assets to the business community, and the chamber has helped bring together corporate partners to speak with a strategic, unified voice to the airlines, said Chris Kershner, the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO.

“The biggest leverage resides with those that are doing significant corporate air travel with the air carriers,” Kershner said. “When these companies speak, the air carriers listen.”

Kershner said they are targeting new air service to the coasts and they have their eyes on in-demand destinations of Boston and Los Angeles.

Kershner said time is money and the Dayton airport is as convenient as it gets.

“DAY is a business travelers airport,” he said. “It’s what our airport does best and it’s the value it provides to the region.”