Airlines lifted social distance requirements May 1. Leisure air travel is trickling back with COVID-19 vaccines and summertime. Direct flights are in vogue and on June 5, Delta’s New York City-bound jets will take to the skies for the first time from the Upstate since March 2020.
Still, while the market appears brighter for Southeastern passenger air travel than it has for a while, the trajectory toward recovery at corporate travel-powered Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport is a gradual one.
“Right now, passenger traffic both in business and leisure are coming back,” Tom Tyra, GSP’s director of air service development, told GSA Business Report. “Business travel is a little slower than leisure travel. Most of the people traveling today are traveling for either personal businesses, visiting friends or relatives or going on vacation. Small businesses are traveling, but we don’t expect some of the larger companies to be getting their people on the road until after summer, maybe early fall.”
Especially as restrictions on gatherings and office occupancy lift in tandem with COVID-19 vaccine rates within the United States and abroad.
With Greenville and Spartanburg’s high percentage of foreign-owned companies, international travel is a mainstay for GSP. Before the pandemic, GSP had double the amount of international traffic than most airports its size. One year out from the beginning of the pandemic, international business and leisure travel still remain virtually nonexistent, Tyra said.
“The borders have kind of been closed between U.S. and Canada,” he said. “You’re not able to travel between those two, into Europe, into parts of Asia. There are a lot of restrictions on international travel, and as those loosen, we will probably have travel come back fairly quickly there. It’s been over a year since people have been able to take an international trip out of here, and for large companies like BMW and Michelin and others that do a lot of traveling internationally, it will be more important that they can go off and start conducting business face to face.”
March 2021 — the latest monthly report — saw 100,738 passengers fly GSP, a 16.4% decrease from last year’s numbers, but according to Tyra, March 2019’s almost 208,000 passengers is more representative of a healthy influx of travelers. This year’s numbers are down almost 51% from March 2019.
That is comparable to other airports of GSP’s size across the nation, he said.
“The recovery of airports really depends on what kind of community you are,” he said, adding that GSP’s traffic is slower than major tourist cities. “We are a little stronger on the business side. We’re not so much of a tourist destination; we have some of that, but we don’t have a beach … so those feature type destinations have rebounded much faster.
Still, passenger traffic dropped 96% last April, so March’s 51% drop from 2019 should be considered next to this April’s 50% increase year over year.
Tyra expects that June may harken in a 60% recovery toward pre-pandemic levels as families seek wide-open spaces to vacation and markets like New York City unseal.
“That’s one that’s a very, very big business market for us,” he said. “But that is just now coming back to airports because New York is just now opening up.”
Florida has also become a hot destination for nonstop flights, prompting GSP to add three new flights in January to Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville, Fla., through a new partnership with Silver Airways.
“Florida has been wide open for a while,” said Tyra. “The flights to Florida have been just packed. Airlines have added and added and added to those areas.”
But Silver Airways is not the only new kid in town.
“We have some folks that are kind of plane spotters around here and have been in their backyard and the park and looking up have seen British Airways, seeing Aer Lingus out of Ireland and TUI out of Belgium,” Tyra said. Since last year, they have been asking “what in their world are all these international carriers doing flying over Greenville?”
While European travel is a no-go, these planes carry a non-human passenger in their bellies: boxes of cargo bound for Upstate companies or abroad.
GSP set a record for cargo volumes last year and plans to go only up from there.
“We had put $33 million in building a new cargo facility and expanding a parking deck area where we could put more airplanes in one place than we could before, and that kind of paid off with the timing,” he said. “When the passenger planes weren’t flying, those boxes still need to go and actually, there was an increase in the number of shipments that were going, because everyone was sitting at home and ordering from Amazon and getting stuff delivered.”
At first, logistics companies sought out airlines that only delivered cargo to carry the extra load, but those companies were reaching capacity, according to Tyra. Around this time last year, passenger planes, especially those linking the U.S. and Europe or Asia, converted their jets into cargo-only fleets to pick up the additional cargo demand and mitigate the almost complete halt of passenger travel.
“When they did that, they went to some of the biggest airports in the U.S. like Atlanta and New York and Chicago, but the problem was that so many new airplanes came that they could only handle so many getting through customs and parking, so they were fighting very large, costly delays,” he said.
Smaller airports like GSP have stepped in to help rout some of this traffic. The Upstate’s proximity to the Inland Port, Interstate 85 and the Charlotte-Atlanta corridor — and perhaps most importantly, a site for U.S. customs — help sweeten the deal for GSP customers.
“They were finding that you could turn an airplane around in a few hours versus a few days,” Tyra said.
This story first appeared in the April 5, 2021 print edition of GSA Business Report.