Eppley Airfield traffic is on the rise as travelers take their first steps back to the air after the near-shutdown of the early pandemic.
With more travelers visiting the terminal, the Omaha Airport Authority is starting a new safe travel campaign to prepare people for the new health and safety environment.
Everyone is encouraged to wear masks around Eppley, and airlines are making them a requirement on flights. Social distancing is in order. With their mobile phones, travelers have the option to go touchless on boarding passes and payments around the airport.
“I think folks are grasping onto what they need to do to travel,” said Dave Roth, the airport authority’s executive director, “and I think are responsibly taking those steps forward.”
Traffic is still well off what’s normal, but several indicators are turning upward.
In early March, Eppley was flying a full schedule and saw 6,644 passengers checked through security on March 1.
By April 1, airlines canceled flights representing more than 40% of the scheduled seats, and a mere 289 passengers came through security that day.
Today, the number of flights is still down. But on Sunday, every flight on the schedule went off, and 1,923 passengers checked through security.
Overall, 55% of scheduled seats were filled with passengers — up from 7% on April 1.
The current environment around air travel has taken a turn from the early pandemic.
Back in March, events were canceled, attractions were closed and businesses called off travel in rapid order as the coronavirus spread. Not only was the health threat rising, states and major cities imposed quarantines, restrictions on gatherings and lockdowns — giving people little reason to fly.
The pandemic continues — with some 20,000 new cases every day across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to advise that air travel may increase one’s risk of coronavirus exposure.
Nevertheless, states are reopening in efforts to boost economic activity. On July 11, even Walt Disney World in Florida will reopen.
Airlines have put more focus on health and safety, cleaning more and shifting boarding procedures.
Face coverings are now required on American Airlines, Delta, Southwest and United flights.
On seating, Delta and Southwest will not be filling middle seats through Sept. 30.
United says it will avoid seating people next to other travelers, or will let fliers change from fuller flights without a fee. American says it will let people move to other seats in the cabin with some restrictions.
Scott Tarry, director of the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said airlines are having a difficult time adjusting to what public health officials advise, their lawyers say and what customers want.
“They’re trying to find that balance,” Tarry said. “It’s a tricky one.”
But with traffic still down, Tarry said, now is a good time for airlines to ramp up their response.
For the terminal itself, Eppley has started a campaign under the slogan #TravelSafeOMA.
It’s partly an advisory that people should mask up and practice social distancing. But it also assures visitors and passengers that the airport is doing extra cleaning, has extra sanitizer dispensers in place, has plastic shields in certain high-traffic areas and will offer floor markings and signs as reminders.
Parking also has shifted so people can park long term on the garage rooftops for a reduced rate — avoiding a closed-in shuttle trip with others.
In the initial return to flying, leisure travelers are leading the way over business passengers, said Tim Fleming, president and chief operating officer of Omaha’s Travel & Transport. That includes some vacation travel but also a lot of people visiting family and friends, he said.
Businesses continue to closely monitor their travel, and some are lifting their travel bans, Fleming said.
But for business travel to open more, he said, the businesses themselves will have to reopen, not only to their employees but to a point where they accept visitors.
Travel & Transport has seen an upturn in its business, too. Fleming said revenue had dropped 98%, but it’s now down 90%.
Fleming said the return to air travel is slow, but he believes it can keep growing. He expects more business travel starting this fall.
“We feel good about things,” he said. “We have a long ways to go.”
Steve McCoy, the Airport Authority’s director of air service and business development, said airlines will be looking to add flights back to the schedule as traffic improves. McCoy said Southwest also has announced plans to start daily service from Omaha to Atlanta starting Dec. 17.
Roth said that even though the airport is starting to see the recovery, officials weren’t expecting it to spring back.
He said he expects that it will be a hurdle for some people to get accustomed to face masks. But as people get more comfortable with safely traveling, Roth expects the traffic to grow.
“It’s going to take some time for people,” he said.