Winding Down The Busiest Summer Ever: Cherry Capital Airport Executive Director Kevin Klein talks record numbers, future expansion
Klein: Well, you’re right. Our busiest day ever was Saturday, August 7. The TSA processed 2,918 [outbound] passengers. And July 2021 was our busiest month ever, with 112,926 total passengers. Last July we had 92,989. And our five busiest days ever were all this summer, and all on consecutive Saturdays in July and August. It’s been a lot. The TSA had to bring in additional employees to handle the load, and our airport staff has been pitching in to help the airlines where we can.
TCBN: And so that big summer 2021 surge is over now?
Klein: Yes, we’ll now start coming down off that traffic high. Our traffic looks like that bell-shaped curve, although this year it has been more of a mountain with a peak. But we should be fairly solid through fall into October. My biggest concern is the November/December timeframe, with the combination of typically slower overall traffic and the uncertainty with the virus. People here typically book 60-90 days out, so locals are already thinking about holiday travel, and the virus will likely have an impact on bookings. Also I have talked to several business owners and they were looking to begin business travel again early next year, but now that might be bumped out a bit.
TCBN: But the fall should still be very strong?
Klein: Yes, there’s still such big pent-up demand for travel, and vaccination numbers are good. We’re also doing [COVID] testing at our airport and many others are, too. So there is a comfort level with travel, and people want to go. That strength will carry into the fall, but that fourth quarter is more of an unknown.
TCBN: What about the future expansion of the airport? Back in February 2020, you had said, ‘”I think we can possibly justify 12 gates, with ten jet bridges and two ground loading gates.'” Is that still the case, and what’s the timeline?
Klein: Yes, and now we’re putting gross numbers to the project. $100 million is about what we’re looking at for 15 gates and expansion of the terminal building. Our final justification document with the FAA came in at 14 gates. And the proposal that [county] commissioners looked at was, “how do we get 14 gates that can handle our seasonal demand?” Because at peak in the summer, we will need 14 gates, but in December, do we need that many? No. So they looked at alternatives, and the one that will be recommended from our Building and Grounds Committee to the full commission is a three-pier concept, with five gates at each pier. So if you visualize what we have currently, our existing gates would be one pier, and we’d replicate two more times to get us to 15. And that design would give us the ability in the middle of winter to shut a pier down. So we will send our proposal to the FAA, and they will either concur or not, though I expect they will concur, and then we will go to financial planning, then to environmental review, then the design phase, and then bids and construction. So the faster the better, but we’re hoping to begin construction in the next 3-4 years, though we really need that space now.
TCBN: Is there anything you can do now to help with that massive traffic within your existing footprint?
Klein: We have added lots of new seating in the terminal, there are some things we can do to give the airlines more flexibility in terms of where their planes can go, and then for next summer we will really encourage the airlines to spread out their schedules even more.
TCBN: When we talked in the middle of the pandemic last spring, you had said all the airlines were approaching things a little differently and that it would be interesting to see how it all shakes out. What have you seen?
Klein: Yes, American, for instance, has really pushed their schedules to max-out revenues during the peak season. United has been similar. Delta has taken a more cautious approach, and they are still down versus where they were in 2019. But all the legacy carriers — and Allegiant too — have continued with their enhanced cleaning procedures and of course masks. They’ve all done a really great job at providing a safe experience for travelers.