Headed to CVG? Leisure travel is driving passenger numbers toward 2019 levels

HEBRON, Ky. — Friends Maddie Hewlett and Chloe Moore from Goshen, Kentucky were excited about their trip to Florida. Like most travelers, they haven’t had a vacation in over a year.

“We were going to go on a cruise last year, but we ended up not being able to because of the whole pandemic and everything,” said Moore.

“It is a little different,” said Hewlett, in reference to the masks everyone has to wear. “This is only my second time flying. So, it won’t be bad.”

If your holiday or summer travel plans include a flight, expect to have plenty of company. Leisure travelers are leading the trend when it comes to airline passengers in the Tri-State. Passenger travel has increased steadily at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport since March when spring break travel started to increase.

Three months later, June passenger numbers are 79% of what they were before the pandemic in June 2019. The projection for July is even higher at 81%, according to Mindy Kershner, the airport’s spokesperson.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand, people wanting to take those trips they’ve been planning for 15 or so months,” said Kershner.

The airport and airlines are helping travelers find the trips they want to take. Kershner said a development team at the airport collects data on travel destinations to help airlines determine the routes that are in demand.

“We match our data with their data, and we figure out what can work based on our market, based on the needs of our market, what we’re seeing,” she said. “Then they do a lot of crunching with the numbers to figure out revenue-wise if it’s going to work for them. So, a lot of it right now is just testing and seeing.”

The result has been an increase in route service to several cities from CVG. United Airlines has added flights to Hilton Head, Pensacola, Portland, Maine, and Charleston, S.C. Allegiant added service to Key West earlier this month. American Airlines plans to return service to Phoenix in August and add service to Austin in September and Boston in November.

“If the market responds to those, and if they bring enough passenger loads, then those routes could stick for the long term,” she added.

Meanwhile, as passengers are returning to the airports, many COVID-19 protocols are still in place. Because airports and airplanes are part of the nation’s public transportation system, masks are required in the airport and on airplanes. The federal mask mandate is scheduled to end Sept. 13.

Moving through the TSA checkpoints has incurred occasional delays, according to Kershner, because some travelers are out of practice with what they can and can’t pass through security.

“The thing that’s slowing us down — and we’re seeing some lines — is just travelers coming back through who haven’t been here in maybe over a year, kind of forgetting what they can bring in their carry-on bags or their personal items, and what they should be packing into their checked items,” she said.

The rebound to air travel is far from complete. Kershner said the passenger numbers for business travelers remain low. However, Chris Burt was flying home with his wife to Dallas. She was in town for a business conference.

“I was just tagging along. I’d never been to Cincinnati, so I thought I’d come along,” Burt said, and added it was also a chance to get out of Texas for a little while.

“It’s nice to finally get out, be able to travel,” he said. “We like to travel, so to be allowed to go and travel and visit, kind of get out of staying in the same place and doing stay vacations has been nice.”

Kershner said the expectation is to see business travel numbers increase later this fall, along with international flights to Paris and Toronto.

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