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Lambert Expects To See Half The Travelers This Holiday Season

St. Louis Lambert International Airport has canceled or postponed projects and left jobs unfilled during the pandemic.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio

More passengers will be going through St. Louis Lambert International Airport for holiday travel, but overall numbers are still expected to fall short of last year's because of the pandemic.

“We’re anticipating that we'll see about 50% of the levels of 2019 or about a 5-to-10% increase in what we've been seeing in the last few weeks,” said Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, the airport’s director.

Those estimates come as the pandemic drags on and health officials caution against traveling for the holidays. They also cap a difficult year for the airport as it deals with the impact of COVID-19.

The toughest period was the first week of April. The airport normally sees up to 42,000 people during that period. This year the total shrank to roughly 1,000.

“It had us rethink our business,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge
Provided by St. Louis Lambert International Airport
Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge says air travel likely won't return to pre-pandemic levels until a vaccine is widely distributed.

About $21 million worth of projects planned for this year were postponed or canceled. Most hiring was also put on hold. There were 110 openings when the pandemic hit. Today there are still about 95 vacancies, and most of those won’t be filled for a while. “We really had to think very quickly about ‘how are we going to stop the bleeding?’” she said.

Hamm-Niebruegge admits that likely won’t occur until a coronavirus vaccine is widely distributed.

“I think there's still that certain amount of travelers who say, ‘I'm just not going to travel until I know it's 100% safe.’”

The airport has been working to make travel during the pandemic as safe as possible. A mask mandate is enforced. Signs are up to encourage social distancing. And there’s a more zealous approach to cleaning. “We are using high germ-killing products, which is a switch from where we were pre-COVID,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

Commonly touched locations like handrails and elevator buttons are being constantly wiped down as well. Hamm-Niebruegge said some of the more intense cleaning measures are likely to remain once the pandemic is over.

St. Louis Lambert International Airport
Overnight crews are deep cleaning St. Louis Lambert International Airport during the pandemic.

Even though travel numbers are down compared to a year ago, Lambert officials said the airport is holding its own. They pointed to numbers showing it ranks second among similar-size airports for flights in August and September. In August it was able to keep 71% of the flights that were scheduled a year earlier.

That’s a better performance than airports in Kansas City and Sacramento, as well as Love Field in Dallas, which is the base for Southwest Airlines.

Southwest is a big player at Lambert, handling roughly 60% of passenger traffic.

Jeff Windau, a research analyst with Edwards Jones who follows Southwest, said overall travel numbers on the airline will be down roughly 65% compared to last year because of the coronavirus.

But there have been some encouraging trends since activity bottomed out around seven months ago.

“And we are expecting to see more people going through the airport over this holiday season, probably hitting numbers we haven't seen since March,” he said.

Windau added that even though things are picking up, the airline has moved to reduce labor costs.

“And so about 25% of employees have taken some type of either voluntary furlough or extended time off,” he said.

Southwest has begun union talks about a salary reduction plan. It has cut flights, which has kept fuel and maintenance costs down.

The airline has stepped up cleaning procedures in an effort to convince people that flying is safe. Windau pointed to a Harvard University study that concluded being on a plane puts people at a similar risk during the pandemic as going to the grocery store.

But much like Lambert’s Hamm-Niebruegge, he thinks a vaccine is key to having travel return to pre-COVID levels.

“There's still uncertainty and volatility until we can really get to some type of mass distribution of a vaccine,” he said.

There’s no doubt executives at Southwest Airlines are waiting anxiously for a widely available COVID vaccine as well.

The company reported a third-quarter loss of $1.2 billion.

Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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