A sluggish beginning to the year in passenger traffic at Springfield-Branson National Airport was followed in March by a year-over-year uptick – a trend that has continued every month since.
According to airport data, this year’s passenger count surpassed 2020’s total of roughly 600,000 by September. Activity this year sits just shy of 800,000 passengers through October, the most recent data available. While officials don’t expect this year to challenge the airport’s record-high of nearly 1.19 million passengers in 2019, the yearly total is on pace to surpass 900,000 and could come close to 1 million.
Brian Weiler, the airport’s director of aviation, said the passenger count this year is down 20% compared with the first 10 months of 2019. The gap between the two years was even smaller when just looking at October, as 2021’s total was 11.5% less than October 2020.
At the start of the year, airport officials weren’t expecting a notable rebound for travel.
But Weiler said pent-up demand, particularly once COVID-19 vaccines became more prevalent this spring, has fueled domestic air travel.
“People just want to get out,” he said. “With the pandemic, people wanted to get away to vacation or visit loved ones they haven’t seen in a long time.”
Weiler said Springfield’s year-over-year passenger growth is comparable to the national level.
U.S.-based airlines combined carried 58.4 million passengers in September 2021, compared with 25.1 million passengers a year prior, according to the most recent Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. The 58 million tally was down 19.5% from the pre-pandemic total of 72.6 million in September 2019.
Weiler said air travel nationally and locally was busy for the Thanksgiving period, which covers 10 days, starting the Friday before the holiday and ending the Sunday after it.
“The nationwide average was about 2 million passengers a day during that period, which is very good,” he said, noting it was 2.45 million on Nov. 28. “That was the highest single day since the pandemic began.”
The local airport’s passenger count on Nov. 28 was 2,151. Another 1,892 passengers traveled on the day before Thanksgiving, Weiler said.
“We were definitely busy over Thanksgiving,” he said. “We pretty much mirrored nationally as far as increased activity.”
While Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines – the airlines that provide service out of Springfield – flew reduced schedules at the airport for much of last year, Weiler said all of the routes are back.
“We’re actually coming out of the pandemic, or where we’re at now, with more destinations than we had going into it,” he said, noting the airport now has 14 nonstop destinations, its most ever.
Three of those new destinations this year came from Las Vegas-based Allegiant, which began offering direct flights in November to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas and the Punta Gorda Airport in Florida. That was preceded by the airline’s addition of a Houston route in May.
“SGF has been a great airport for us since we started our first route there in 2005, and we’ve been very pleased with our success there,” Allegiant Air spokesperson Sonya Padgett said via email. “We’ve steadily added routes over the years and currently serve nine cities from SGF.”
Padgett said Allegiant’s business model is based on demand, noting its network planning team adjusts schedules when necessary.
The local airport in September was awarded a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation that officials hope can result in a new route to the East Coast. Weiler said the target is to get American Airlines service into Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.
The grant funds will be matched up to $90,000 from the Springfield Business Development Corp. and up to $60,000 from the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. Additionally, Springfield City Council approved allocation up to $25,000 toward the effort, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.
“We’ve had a meeting with American. They seem open to the idea, but they are not going to commit at this time,” Weiler said, adding there’s currently not many discussions among airlines about long-term expansion.
He noted the airport was awarded a similar federal grant in 2013, which resulted three years later in American starting nonstop service in Springfield to Charlotte, North Carolina.
As the year concludes, so too has work on the airport’s new 55,000-square-foot maintenance hangar designated for Envoy Air Inc., a subsidiary of American Airlines Group Inc. (Nasdaq: AAL).
St. Louis-based KCI Construction Co. was general contractor for the $10.4 million project designed by Oklahoma City-based Frankfurt-Short-Bruza Associates PC.
Envoy Vice President of Maintenance Jay Murray said the hangar is expected to be fully operational by Dec. 13. Weiler said a Dec. 14 ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned.
“We couldn’t be more excited with this new hangar,” Murray said via email. “The current facility has been serving us well for the last 15 years, but it was time to expand our footprint in Springfield and keep the growth momentum.”
Weiler said the hangar will be an asset for the airport and region for decades. It was a project several years in the making before it came to fruition.
“It basically guarantees that Springfield will be maintaining the next generation Embraer E-175, which is really going to be the workhorse of their regional fleet,” he said.
Envoy has operated a 22,500-square-foot facility in the airport’s general aviation area through a lease agreement signed 15 years ago, according to officials. The company entered a 20-year lease agreement with a 10-year option for the new hangar, which holds up to three Embraer E-175 aircraft at a time. The 76-seat E-175 is the largest plane in the fleet, officials say.
“The new hangar will also provide additional space for aircraft outside the facility, an area dedicated to parts storage, space for training and for our administrative staff,” Murray said.
The Springfield airport also is targeting a spring 2022 start of construction for a cargo apron expansion project.
A $500,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Transportation will be matched by $500,000 in airport funds to allow for a 21,500-square-foot extension of the existing cargo apron, an area off the runway where airplanes load and unload, according to past reporting. Weiler said
Crawford Murphy & Tilly Inc. is engineer for the project, adding a general contractor is yet to be selected. Work is expected to wrap in the summer.
Once a week this time of year, roughly 150 men trade business suits and work attire for baseball uniforms – complete from caps to cleats – for the Grip N Rip Baseball league.