The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a sharp drop in the number of passengers moving through Duluth International Airport.

Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority, said 50%-75% of daily flights are being canceled, while only 15-20% of the seats are filled on the flights that continue.

“We’ve seen a dramatic swing over the last two, three weeks,” Werner said.

Since then, efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, have urged people to cancel trips and stay home.

Passenger numbers are falling nationwide, too. The Transportation Safety Administration reported only 180,000 people moved through its airport security checkpoints Sunday. On the same day last year, 2.5 million people moved through the TSA checkpoints.

But prior to the pandemic, the Duluth International Airport was reporting higher numbers.

In January, the airport saw 24,000 passengers, a 46% increase from the year before. In February, it saw 25,000 passengers, a 54% increase compared to February 2019.

“We were on the right trajectory,” Werner said. “We were on a growth trajectory before all this happened.”

He expects April to also have similarly low numbers and noted there’s already been a scheduled reduction of more than 7,500 seats for the month.

Werner said the decline in traffic has caused Delta to delay its plan to use a larger 110-seat Boeing 717 instead of the 50-seat regional jet for some of its six daily Duluth to Minneapolis St. Paul flights, a move that was supposed to happen this month.

But Werner is hoping that once the pandemic passes, people will start flying again.

“I think we will eventually resume to a normal situation. I don't anticipate any permanent cancellations of flights, it's just going to take some time,” Werner said. “Perhaps it could take the rest of the year to ramp up to a normal situation. We'll just have to see what the pandemic holds for us.”

Werner, who has been at the airport for 20 years, said this downturn is unlike anything he’s seen, even the drop in airline passengers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“This, frankly, isn’t even comparable to 9/11,” Werner said.

A post from the CDC reminds people to wash their hands at the entrance of Duluth International Airport on Monday. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
A post from the CDC reminds people to wash their hands at the entrance of Duluth International Airport on Monday. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)