Low-cost fares and the allure of beaches have eased the COVID-19 pain for St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
Airlines for America, a lobbying group for the pandemic-ravaged U.S. airline industry, predicts air travel in the United States won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024.
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom for airports. Consider St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, commonly referred to as PIE, its airport code. The airport saw a 12.1% increase in passenger traffic, year-to-date, over Labor Day weekend.
'Because of the Allegiant model and the leisure travelers coming in and out of St. Pete, we're going to be a lot healthier than most.' Mark Sprague, deputy director of St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport
St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport Deputy Director Mark Sprague has a simple explanation for the surprising uptick in air travel to the region.
“Our beaches are safe,” he says. “That’s a fact. People are coming here for the beaches, and as a whole, the hospitality industry has done a great job with getting their message out about safety in hotel rooms, restaurants and beaches. Kudos to them. People got the message.”
One healthy weekend is nice, but how does PIE — which stands to lose at least $1 million in revenue in 2020, Sprague says — plan to weather a pandemic that, at least for the time being, has no end in sight?
For starters, unlike Tampa International Airport across the bay, PIE, despite its name, is primarily a domestic airport with one carrier, low-cost Allegiant Air, providing the majority of inbound and outbound flights. In some cases, over-relying on one source of business like that is a risk, but in the pandemic, it's been a boon for the airport. Also, Sprague, who joined PIE in 2015, says Allegiant has been slashing its already cheap fares, making it possible to travel to Nashville, for example, for as little as $25.
Those kinds of deals have proven irresistible to people desperate for a change of scenery — a fact reflected in PIE’s steadily rising traffic levels. In July, the airport served 137,462 passengers traveling on domestic flights, a 44% decrease from the same month last year but a vast improvement from the 97% drop in the initial stages of the pandemic.
“Because of the Allegiant model and the leisure travelers coming in and out of St. Pete,” Sprague says, “we're going to be a lot healthier than most.”
The Allegiant model, he adds, isn’t just cheap fares. Most of the carrier’s flights are nonstop, which appeals to travelers who want to minimize their exposure to other cities, airports and passengers by flying directly from home to their destination of choice.
“We have marketed that,” Sprague says. “We’re not like the legacy carriers where you have to go to another airport to change planes, and now you're exposing yourself to that city, that airport, waiting around with more people. And being a smaller airport, we have fewer touch points.”
PIE’s advantages become even clearer when compared to TIA, where traffic in July fell 68%, year-over-year. Of course, some of that drop can be attributed to the shutdown of international air travel — which constitutes a much bigger piece of the pie, lowercase, for TIA.
PIE, Sprague says, received $8.7 million in pandemic relief funding from the federal government’s coronavirus relief bill, money that covered operations, maintenance and payroll expenses. The airport didn’t layoff or furlough any workers and doesn’t expect to, he adds.
And the airport, instead of hunkering down, has been busy with upgrades, adding new concessions, including scaled-down versions of iconic, locally owned St. Pete brands, such as Mazzaro’s Italian Market and 3 Daughters Brewery, as well as Dunkin'.
Sprague, a former pilot and flight instructor who switched to the airport side of the industry in the aftermath of 9/11, has no doubt the sector will bounce back. How quickly that happens, he says, depends on a COVID-19 vaccine.
“If you look at the highs and lows of the airline industry, it’s a sine wave,” he says, referring to a mathematical concept that represents steady oscillations in a cycle. “The aviation industry and the travel industry will be able to recover.”