Jacksonville International Airport’s traffic has plunged from about 12,000 passengers on a normal day to approximately 400 a day since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
That’s according to Jacksonville Aviation Authority (JAA) CEO Mark VanLoh, who appeared on WJCT News’ First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross on Wednesday.
The dropoff has put the airport’s plan to build a new concourse on hold indefinitely.
“We’ve ceased all design work. You know, we were ready to start construction later this year,” VanLoh said.
Although state and local restrictions on businesses are starting to ease, VanLoh expects customers to notice the effects of the pandemic for years to come.
“We're looking at three years of recovery. You know, during the last recession in 2008, it took Jacksonville International almost five years to get back to where the numbers were. And so we're thinking that's what's gonna happen with the airlines. They'll get rid of the smaller aircraft, and they'll have to raise prices to compensate for those empty seats. There's just no easy fix," he said.
If there is a silver lining for travelers, VanLoh said it’s the lack of crowds.
“You can get through screening in about 30 seconds. Parking is readily available, no problems like we had last summer. So, if you're gonna fly, there's no better time," he said.
He said the airport has upped its sanitizing game, with a custodial crew that cleans 24 hours a day. VanLoh said his team is also looking at reconfiguring waiting areas by either blocking off or removing every other seat.
“A lot of people are choosing just to stand rather than sit. And then of course, once you get on the airplane, that's a whole new new ballgame. Most of the airlines now are requiring passengers to have a mask,” he said.
Many of the airlines are also keeping the middle seats empty. VanLoh pointed out the airlines already have what he said are “the best air filtration systems anywhere."
VanLoh said industry analysts believe leisure travel will be the first to begin rebounding, with business travel taking a little longer.
One thing he's looking forward to in the immediate future, though, is a virutal music festival Wednesday evening featuring an act that JAX passengers may recognize.
The Jetstream Music Festival will be a showcase of musicians performing at 23 airports around the country. It’s being hosted by Austin-Bergstron International Airport, which is in the home city of the long-running Austin City Limits music show, which airs on WJCT TV and on demand via WJCT’s Passport.
JAX Airport has sponsored many artists through the years in the main waiting area near the rocking chairs.
“We found an artist that is one of our regular performers,” VanLoh said.
The Jetstream Music Festival on Facebook Live is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. on May 6 in support of local musicians.