It’s been a tough year for airlines, and the Golden Triangle Regional Airport is certainly no exception as the industry struggles with the continuing effects of COVID-19.
“Business is down,” GTRA Executive Director Mike Hainsey said. “For August, we’re down about 68 percent from last August and annually we’re down 57 percent. That’s exactly the same percentage as the entire country.”
Going into 2020, the prospects for GTRA had never been brighter. A fourth daily flight to Atlanta had been added in June 2019 and passenger loads continued to increase year after year.
Then came the pandemic. The fourth flight was canceled in April. In October, GTRA will have just two flights to Atlanta.
Even so, airline consultant Mike Boyd said, the post-COVID prospects for GTRA are favorable, mainly because of its strong position in business travel, which accounts for about 80 percent of the airport’s commercial business.
Boyd is no stranger to GTRA officials, having first been hired as a consultant in 2002 as the airport was recovering from another major disruption — 9/11.
“Change always comes,” Boyd told the GTRA board during its Friday meeting. “You can’t stop it, but there are always opportunities. What’s going on with the aviation system in this country? What are the trends? Where is GTRA now and what can we expect?”
Boyd said there are three kinds of airport travel — commercial, general aviation (privately-owned and operated aircraft) and military.
“Every airport is different based on what kind of operations they rely on,” Boyd said. “General aviation is dead as far as growth goes. Military is going to be stable. Air carriers will grow, so from a business point of view, this place is very sound. Business travel is the name of the game and that’s where you’re strongest.”
Boyd said the region’s economic growth will only become more appealing to airlines as they recover from COVID, which Boyd believes will begin in three to six months.
“The air transportation system has been pummeled, so they are going to be doing things differently as they recover,” he said. “They’re going to be looking at markets where there is economic growth. The economic growth here has been huge. The airlines are aware of that.”
That, Boyd said, is a reason for optimism.
“The rebound here will be faster than the nation as a whole,” Boyd said. “As far as facilities, you have everything you need for probably 20 years. Overall, you are in better shape than most places in the country.”
Boyd said GTRA’s long-desired efforts to add westbound flights through American Airlines remains viable, although he doesn’t expect any movement on that until the end of 2021 at the earliest.
“When this airport goes back to four flights a day on Delta and we get American Airlines — and they will come at some point — you’re going to have a lot more growth than the other regional airports like Tupelo or Meridian,” Boyd said.
Boyd said that the demand for business travel out of GTRA continues to be high. That, he said, will be enhanced as Delta replaces its fleet of 50-seat planes to the e175 aircrafts, which seat 75.
“That’s a 50 percent increase in the (passenger) load for every flight,” he said. “The good news is that you have plenty of demand to fill those seats.”
In fact, even now there is a strong demand for business travel, Hainsey said.
“What you should know is that Delta is limiting capacity to 60 percent as a safety precaution,” he said. “For us, with the 50-seat planes Delta flies into GTRA, that means there are only 30 seats. We regularly have 27, 28 passengers on those flights.”