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Pandemic cuts ND air travel in half in 2020

Minot boardings hurt by loss of business travel

Submiitted Graphic North Dakota airline passenger boardings (2017-2020). Source: N.D. Aeronautics Commission.

North Dakota’s eight commercial service airports finished 2020 with fewer than half the number of passengers who traveled by air in 2019, according to information released by the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission.

There were 572,093 airline passenger boardings statewide last year – a decrease of 619,476 passengers or 52%. It is the lowest passenger count that the state has recorded since calendar year 2003, according to the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission.

Minot ended 2020 with 84,601 passenger boardings at Minot International Airport, down 49% from 2019. The airport saw 165,988 boardings in 2019 and 222,144 boardings at its peak in 2014. December 2020 brought 8,039 boardings, far short of the 15,718 in 2019 and peak of 20,828 in December 2013.

Rick Feltner, airport director in Minot, said boardings continue to improve, but numbers are being held back by the sustained loss of business travelers.

“There’s a number of things that really need to happen before we get anything close to what I would call a full recovery or even a substantial recovery, and one of those is a return to business travel,” he said. “The vacation trip to Las Vegas and Phoenix is still strong. It’s the business travel that’s really taken a hit.”

Canadian travel is another area that had fallen off pre-pandemic because of exchange rate on the Canadian dollar. The pandemic with its border closings now has dried up that traffic.

“Once that border opens up, it will be a big help to us,” Feltner said.

Feltner noted airlines using the Minot airport haven’t curtailed service.

“The number of seats is really back to where it was pre-COVID so there’s plenty of capacity in and out of Minot, but they are just not filling them up,” he said. “In some cases, they are flying fewer flights with bigger airplanes.”

North Dakota passenger numbers have been adversely affected since the beginning of the pandemic, when the state experienced an immediate 95% percent decline in passenger numbers in April, the aeronautics commission reported.

Since that time, the state has been trending in a positive direction and has recovered to about 50% of pre-pandemic levels. The recent growth in demand has encouraged airlines to begin slowly adding back flights and seat capacity. Today, North Dakota still has a high level of air service availability based upon historical standards as the state’s airports still provide the public with 10 non-stop destinations (three are seasonal), the aeronautics commission stated.

“Our airports rose to the challenge that this past year brought for the aviation industry which resulted in significant negative impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” said Kyle Wanner, executive director of the commission, in a news release. “Our airports never closed and they quickly worked to implement recommended mitigations to help ensure that a safe environment exists for those who need to travel. They were also able to accommodate emergency related personnel and products to efficiently enter and depart our state. As we look forward to 2021, I remain optimistic that airline passenger numbers will continue their current positive trend towards recovery.”

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