After a year and a half of darkness, is there finally some light (at the end of the tunnel) for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport?
New data suggest the airport, which has had one of the most sluggish returns to normal(ish) performance in the COVID era, may be seeing better times for the rest of the year.
New data from the trade group Airlines for America suggest that the airport will see just 11 percent fewer flights during the fourth quarter than during the same period in pre-pandemic 2019. That projected performance also is less than the 14-percent drop reported nationally, based on current flight schedules.
That’s a vast change from much of the past year and a half; even in recent months, Reagan National has struggled to return to two-thirds of normal service, whether measured in terms of flights or passengers. Airlines for America uses data from Cirium, based on airlines’ published schedule, to derive a state-by-state breakdown of service. While located in Virginia, Reagan National is classified as if it was located in the District of Columbia, making for a jurisdiction with one airport.
Based on the data, two states (South Carolina and Idaho) will see slight increases in flights during the fourth quarter compared to 2019, while Utah will see effectively no change and 10 others (Florida, South Dakota, Mississippi, Arizona, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Tennessee and Nevada) will see dropoffs of less than 10 percent.
Virginia (minus Reagan National) will see an 11-percent decline in passenger flights, while Maryland will be off 25 percent, tied with Alaska for second biggest decline (Oregon led that pack at 27 percent).
The numbers, which show the number of flights airlines plan to operate, are only one indication of the COVID-era health of the airline industry, as it does not take into account how large the aircraft are, how filled they may be, and how much passengers are paying for flights.
The rebound at Reagan National may be due in part to the fact that the airport’s dominant carrier – American Airlines – appears to be the most aggressive among the nation’s three major “legacy” carriers in operating flights this fall.
American’s capacity for the quarter is expected to be down 7.4 percent from two years ago, but that’s less than half the cuts anticipated at Delta Air Lines (19.7 percent) and United Airlines (21.8 percent).
The final quarter of the year includes three large travel periods (Columbus Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas-to-New-Year’s), but otherwise leisure travel – which has been about the only thing keeping the airlines going for the past 18 months – is relatively light.
There does appear to be a comeback of sorts in the business segment of the travel market, and it also appears that more international travel may be available in coming months. But those bright spots may depend on what track COVID decides to take in coming months.