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Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport traffic is bouncing back. This is why travelers are returning

Melissa Yeager Arizona Republic (CNT) City News And Talk #arizona

Over Labor Day weekend, Transportation and Security Administration officers at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport saw something they didn’t expect: more passengers. 

According to the airport, officers screened 9,221 passengers, slightly more than the 9,185 who went through the checkpoint in 2019. 

Normally, that might not be newsworthy. But these figures come as public health officials continue to advise against nonessential travel, something which has hammered air passenger traffic globally.

“We didn’t expect that and I think more importantly, the TSA didn’t expect that,” said Brian O’Neill, the executive director and CEO of Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. “They were amazed to see that the numbers this year were stronger than the record-setting numbers last year.”

Those numbers held strong for the rest of the month. Newly released passenger traffic statistics show the airport’s September 2020 traffic was down 29% compared with 2019, an improvement from August 2020 where traffic was down 35%.

“September is usually a pretty dark month for aviation for commercial airlines because it’s the end of the summer. People are returning back to school. There’s not as many vacations,” O’Neill said about the surprising statistics. 

To give some context, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has not released its September figures yet, but in August, its passenger traffic was down 61.4%. That is still better than the national average reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which shows passenger traffic in August was down 70% nationwide year over year.  

How leisure travel propelled the higher airport traffic

O’Neill attributes much of the rebound to the fact that the airport’s primary airline, Allegiant, caters to leisure and not business travelers. He believes there is a pent-up demand for people to travel and the ultra-low cost carrier’s inexpensive fares target that segment of the market. 

The airline’s business model also flies point to point, primarily connecting smaller airports without a layover, something passengers might be hesitant to do in the middle of a pandemic.

“They’re really connecting family and friends to destinations in the upper Midwest and destinations on the West Coast,” O’Neill said.

The airline agrees with that assessment.

“At many of the airports we serve, Allegiant is one of the only carriers there, if not the sole airline,” Sonya Padgett, spokesperson for Allegiant, said in an email. “This means the crowds are smaller and the facilities (are) easier to navigate than they are at larger airports. Our customers tend to appreciate that.”

What will fall look like at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway?

The airport is anticipating continued traffic improvement in the fall and into the holiday season as customer confidence improves. Staff at the airport credit some of that improved confidence to airlines communicating the steps they are taking to keep passengers and crew members safe.

Some of the airline industry’s layered safety approach includes requiring masks, cleaning planes, and explaining how the aircraft’s HEPA air filtration systems work.

“It’s amazing how many people (now) understand what a HEPA filter is and how that cleans the air,” said Ryan Smith, spokesman for Phoenix Mesa-Gateway airport. 

In early October, Allegiant removed a passenger from a flight departing from Gateway to Provo, Utah, when the airline said he violated its safety policy when he refused to wear a mask.

“I really think that’s how the commercial airline segment of aviation is going to return to pre-COVID numbers— is by people having positive experiences and others saying, ‘Well there are examples out there. People are flying again and doing it safe so we’re going to do it as well,'” O’Neill said.