Travel out of Lubbock Preston Smith International Airport is way up from last year, but still below pre-pandemic numbers.
Part of the reason it hasn’t fully bounced back is that not all the flights have returned, including Lubbock’s direct service to Austin.
In April of 2020, the first full month of COVID-19 in Lubbock County, saw the fewest passengers out of the Lubbock airport. Just 2,345 passengers, fewer than 100 per day, flew that month. It was close to a 95% decrease from the 42,964 passengers that flew out of the airport in April 2019.
This past April, 31,951 passengers flew out of the airport. Travel out of the airport was 13 times the volume in April 2021 compared to the previous year, but still lower than April pre-pandemic.
April was the extreme, but airport director Kelly Campbell says this is pretty much still the picture: significantly more people are traveling out of the airport this year, but still below pre-pandemic numbers.
May of this year, for example, saw a 345% increase in passengers from May 2020, but it was still 22% lower than May 2019.
The biggest month-to-month jump in passengers occurred from February to March of this year, when about 13,500 more passengers flew out of the airport.
Campbell says the airport is beginning to feel like an airport again.
“It’s a drastic turnaround,” Campbell said. “In April of 2020, it was hard to come to work. It was depressing. We had days when our last flight went out at 10:30 in the morning. We’ve slowly gotten better, it’s been a slow progression. We still continue to see it get a little bit better.”
According to the Associated Press, the July 4th weekend was expected to be the busiest travel weekend since the pandemic, as more people across the country are vaccinated. An estimated 3.5 million travelers were expected to pass through U.S. airports.
A spokesperson for AAA told CBS News that many more Americans, an estimated 43 million, were expected to travel by car during the July 4th weekend.
Airlines say that domestic leisure travel is back to 2019 levels, although the lack of business travelers means that overall, the number of passengers over the past week is still down slightly compared with the same days in 2019, according to the AP.
Campbell also says that in Lubbock, it seems to be that leisure travel is picking up, while business travel remains down. Campbell says it’s impossible to know when, if ever, business travel climbs back now that virtual meetings have become so ordinary.
The number of flights out of the Lubbock Preston Smith International Airport is still down from where it was pre-pandemic.
American, United and Southwest Airlines have flights out of Lubbock. Campbell says American has pretty much returned to its eight flights a day out of Lubbock, United has returned to its five flights a day, but Southwest Airlines is currently running on average about four flights a day out of Lubbock, when pre-pandemic it was about eight flights a day.
One of the flights that Southwest Airlines hasn’t returned is the direct flight from Lubbock to Austin, and Southwest was the only airline to offer that direct flight, so now there is no direct flight.
Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Massengale co-signed a letter to executives at Southwest Airlines last month, saying Lubbock strongly encourages the airline to return air services to pre-pandemic levels as soon as possible.
“Lubbock’s business and cultural activities are quickly emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter from Pope and Massengale said. “Our hotel occupancy, sales tax, and unemployment rate are all at or very near pre-COVID-19 levels. With this in mind, constituents are expressing concern about the lack of Southwest service. Complaints were particularly prevalent during the State of Texas legislative session with the suspension of Southwest’s non-stop flight to Austin.”
Campbell says Southwest has informed Lubbock that the non-stop to Denver will not return, although she said that decision was made before the pandemic. There’s still a nonstop from Lubbock to Denver through United. Campbell said Southwest’s non-stop from Lubbock to Austin should return at some point, and they’re hopeful for the non-stop to Houston as well.
Campbell says airlines and the airport, like many businesses, are having difficulty filling positions.
“Anybody who’s looking for a job, there’s an opportunity here,” Campbell said of the airport. “We’ve been trying to re-open the airport shelter park, and we just can’t. We need custodial help, the restaurant operator is hiring. I’m not sure about the rental cars. But there’s definitely a lot of opportunities. The airlines are hiring, too.”
The Lubbock airport is still undergoing major renovations, and Campbell hopes that the most visible parts are done this fall.
The large capital improvement project underway at the airport includes modernizing the entire building, moving security screening and exit points, improving the public address system, improving internal operations and updating much of the interior of the building. Some major highlights of the project are that TSA screening will be moved to the east side of the building, there will only be one consolidated baggage-claim area on the south end of the curved building, and the brick flooring will be removed.
Campbell says the pandemic slightly delayed the project because supplies were slow to come in and crews were sometimes out, but she says it’s nearing completion.