Leo Darst, of Fort Myers, Florida, was one of several people waiting around the baggage carousel at the Duluth International Airport on Wednesday morning after his flight from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport landed.

Compared to other flights he took early on in the pandemic — when airports were still crowded and few precautions were taken, which he said "was a bit scary" — Darst said he felt safe flying from Fort Myers to Minneapolis and then Minneapolis to Duluth so he could visit family in the area.

"We've done a little bit of flying during this time. We feel pretty good. The airports are doing a good job of keeping people distanced. Delta's doing a great job of keeping people apart," Darst said, noting Delta Air Lines' pledge to keep middle seats open through March.

He's not alone. After April saw airline passengers fall almost 94% across the U.S. and 95% in Duluth as the initial wave of stay-at-home orders were made, more people are returning to the skies.

But it still remains far below normal levels.

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At the Duluth International Airport, 8,767 airline passengers landed or took off in November, almost a 65% drop compared to November 2019, which saw 24,802 total passengers.

"We certainly have seen a fairly significant increase up through the typical peak summer period, I would say that has generally leveled off since August," Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority, said in an interview with the News Tribune last week.

Similar to November, October's numbers were down 64% compared to 2019.

"I think that's generally where we're going to be until something dramatically changes the conditions," Werner said. "And that really is a vaccine."

Nationwide, airports have seen similar passenger traffic trends.

In November, 62% fewer passengers passed through Transportation Security Administration security checkpoints across the country compared to the same month last year — from nearly 2.6 million in 2019 to less than 1 million in 2020, according to checkpoint data tracked by the TSA.

For passenger traffic to rebound fully, Werner said three things need to happen: consumer confidence needs to increase, something precautions taken by airports and airlines can help with but will ultimately depend on the vaccine; travel restrictions need to loosen so people have someplace to go; and when demand does return, thousands of furloughed and laid-off airline employees need to be rehired and retrained.

"I suspect that all three of those will start to generally improve in the middle of next year, and hopefully that we'll see a speedy recovery after that," Werner said.

The International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing airlines around the world, said in its Economic Performance of the Airline Industry report released in November that the vaccine would lead to "significant gains later in the year" for the airline industry.

"In 2021, the availability of a vaccine in the second half of the year is anticipated to be a turning point but the recovery will be gradual since phased distribution of vaccine will take time," the group wrote.

Travelers move through the James L. Oberstar Terminal at the Duluth International Airport on Wednesday.  (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Travelers move through the James L. Oberstar Terminal at the Duluth International Airport on Wednesday. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Delta had been planning to use a larger 110-seat Boeing 717 instead of the 50-seat regional jet for some of its daily Duluth-to-Minneapolis flights, a move that was supposed to happen in March, but the pandemic delayed that. Werner said that still hasn't happened and airlines are taking a short-term view on managing their fleets.

Since May, Delta has been using larger 76-seat Bombardier CJR900 and CJR700 jets to accommodate more open seats and the company's 60% load factor cap, Werner said.

"There's been interest in divesting from the 50-seat regional jet anyway and so I think the pandemic just kind of hastened getting that out of the fleet," Werner said. "So I think the 75-seat dual-class product is here to stay on Delta in Duluth. That's my guess right now."

Just prior to the pandemic, Delta had been operating five daily flights between Minneapolis and Duluth, while United Airlines had been flying three between Chicago and Duluth. That's down to about three daily Delta flights to and from Minneapolis and two daily United flights to and from Chicago.

For those still flying, extra precautions taken by airports and airlines have made them confident enough to keep boarding flights.

On Wednesday, Brianna Lally, a medical student living in the Bronx, sat on a bench near the baggage carousel with her cat, Zoey, in a carrying case next to her.

Brianna Lally, a medical student in the Bronx, New York, checks her text messages after collecting her bags at the James L. Oberstar Terminal in the Duluth International Airport on Wednesday.  (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Brianna Lally, a medical student in the Bronx, New York, checks her text messages after collecting her bags at the James L. Oberstar Terminal in the Duluth International Airport on Wednesday. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The two had just landed on a flight from Minneapolis and an earlier flight from New York's LaGuardia Airport.

She said other travelers generally stayed distanced thanks to loading the back of the plane first and other measures.

Flying with all those precautions? It made her feel safe.

"It's actually been kind of nice," Lally said.

Airport seeks route to Denver — again

The Duluth Airport Authority will again ask for federal funding to support an airline route connecting Duluth and Denver.

If approved, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Small Community Air Service Development Program would help fund $750,000 of the $1 million needed to guarantee revenue for an air carrier to fly two to three direct flights per day between Duluth and Denver International Airport, which has regular routes to many other western U.S. cities.

The St. Louis County Board on Tuesday approved a pledge of $75,000 if the grant is approved. The city of Duluth has approved a $100,000 pledge.

Other public and private sectors have been asked to pledge funds.

"I've been very pleasantly surprised with the amount of local support for this initiative given some of the economic hardships out there," Werner said in a Duluth Airport Authority board meeting on Tuesday. "And I think it just sends a really strong signal that the business community in the region as a whole understands the economic driver that is additional air service."

The airport has long sought a Duluth-Denver route. It submitted an application for the grant last year but did not make the cut.

Officials hope this time is different.

"We think we've got a very strong application again this time and are excited to get it submitted," Werner said.

The application is due at the end of January.

A lone suitcase rests on the carousel at the Duluth International Airport on Wednesday.  (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
A lone suitcase rests on the carousel at the Duluth International Airport on Wednesday. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)