After 30 years as a commercial airline pilot, Jim Farragher had to use a flight simulator this summer to reacquaint himself with flying a plane.
Farragher works for Delta Air Lines but didn’t fly for more than three months because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the commercial airline industry. He recently resumed flying domestically, a far cry from the international flights he’s used to, but representative of the industry’s slow recovery after hitting a historic low this spring.
“Normally at this stage in my career I’d be flying big planes to Europe, Asia, and South America, not back and forth to the West Coast,” Farragher said. “It’s a little bit of a step back but it’s what we need to do until everything comes back.”
In addition to preventing him from flying for months, COVID-19 has also drastically changed Farragher’s commute to work.
Before the pandemic, he drove 15 minutes from his home in Falmouth to the Portland International Jetport, where he could catch a flight to New York City and proceed with the international leg of his shift. Now, because flights into and out of the Jetport have been reduced, he must drive two hours to Boston to catch a flight to New York.
According to data from airline trade association Airlines for America, the third week of April was the worst week this year for U.S. air travel. At that time, the number of customers traveling through security checkpoints was down an average of 95 percent from 2019. Averages from August painted a better picture, with numbers down “only” 70 percent compared with last year.
Director Paul Bradbury said the Jetport has followed a similar trajectory. The airport hit its low point on April 14, down 97.3 percent in passenger volume. August showed substantial improvement, off 65 percent from a year ago.
Although PWM is now faring slightly better than the national average for passenger volume, Bradbury said the opposite was true back in June.
He believes business began improving after Gov. Janet Mills exempted visitors from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut from Maine’s quarantine and testing requirement July 3. The New York metropolitan area is the Portland Jetport’s second-largest market behind the Washington, D.C. area.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the Jetport’s best day for passenger volume was Aug. 22, when the number of customers moving through security was down only 54 percent compared to last year.
Some airline officials are calling the slow comeback a “swoosh,” since graphs resemble the Nike logo.
“All of us were certainly hoping for a V(-shaped) recovery or something like that, but this pandemic has ultimately proven to go otherwise,” Bradbury said.
The Jetport is now experiencing spikes in passenger traffic on weekends, and Bradbury believes people think Maine is a safe place to visit because of the state’s relatively low number of COVID-19 cases and its testing positivity rate of under 1 percent (compared with around 5 percent nationally).
There are other indicators that the Jetport is doing relatively well, including a number of seasonal routes that continued this summer and those that are set to return in the coming months.
Bradbury said Delta stopped providing service to other New England airports because of COVID-19, including Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire and T.F. Green Airport outside Providence, Rhode Island.
“Even in this tough time they’re recognizing the value of Portland’s market,” he said. “They haven’t pulled out of our market entirely, they’ve reduced service, they’ve reduced certain destinations, (but they) continued to fly.”
Delta is scheduled to resume service to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and La Guardia Airport from Portland Nov. 8, which is how Farragher used to connect to his international flights every week.
American Airlines also recently launched nonstop service to Miami out of Portland, and Frontier Airlines will resume its service to Orlando and Fort Myers, Florida, Nov. 12.
Bradbury acknowledged the winter season is “absolutely slower in Portland.” But before the pandemic, January and February 2020 set all-time passenger records for the Jetport.
January saw nearly 68,000 people board flights, compared with almost 65,000 the previous year. Similarly, in February about 67,500 people took flights from Portland compared with fewer than 65,700 in February 2019.
“We were becoming a more balanced market, which was brilliant,” Bradbury said. “We were flowing up the shoulder season of January and February and reducing some of that summer capacity, which is a good thing for our airline partners.”
He said running an airport is one of the “weirdest” businesses to be in because airports do not sell the final product that attracts customers. Instead, they are “beholden to (their) airline partners” and responsible for keeping costs to airlines “in check with the marketplace.”
Several U.S. airlines have gone bankrupt or shut down since March 1, according to Airlines for America, including Compass Airlines, Miami Air International, RavnAir Group, and Trans States Airlines.
Farragher said Delta has survived by changing its operations and offering experienced pilots an early retirement plan that 2,000 of his colleagues accepted. He also said thousands of pilots with less seniority than him could be furloughed in the coming months.
In April, the Department of Transportation provided a $25 billion COVID-19 bailout for 10 of the nation’s biggest airlines, including Delta, with stipulations. For instance, airlines that accepted stimulus funds are prohibited from laying off employees until at least Oct. 1, which is now a week away.
Similarly, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, commonly known as CARES, included $10 billion in relief funds for eligible U.S. airports.
The Portland Jetport received a $12.16 million CARES grant from the Federal Aviation Administration and allocated just over $1.9 million to its fiscal year 2020 budget. For its proposed fiscal 2021 budget, the Jetport is planning to offset a projected loss of nearly $8 million with $7.9 million in CARES funding.
Bradbury said $5.2 million of that will be used to cover payroll and benefits next year, and the balance will pay off debt.
He also said his most recent budget proposal was the first in his 28-year career that did not project a surplus, although it also doesn’t anticipate layoffs.
Ultimately, both Bradbury and Farragher said they feel commercial airline travel is safe, although COVID-19 restrictions vary among airlines.
Farragher said Delta is selling only 60 percent of its seats, which leaves one seat open between passengers, and is cleaning planes to a degree he has “never seen before.” The airline also provides and requires everyone to wear specific masks aboard their aircraft; passengers who refuse are “politely asked to leave,” he said.
As a pilot, Farragher is required to wear a mask in terminals and aboard aircraft, although he said it is “impossible” to maintain social distance from a copilot sitting “two feet away” in the cockpit.
On Sept. 15, he piloted an early morning flight from New York City to Seattle that had only 60 of its 180 seats occupied, but said he still believes public confidence in flying is starting to return.
Bradbury is also cautiously optimistic about what the future holds.
“It got as bad as I’ve ever seen the industry in my 28 years here,” he said. “But now we’re in the swoosh and we are hopeful for recovery, even though it may be 2023 or 2024 before we are back to 2019 numbers.”