Des Moines airport traffic drops 95%, new terminal could be delayed

By: - April 14, 2020 2:01 pm

The Des Moines airport could delay a new terminal for 15 years. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Passenger traffic at Des Moines’ airport has fallen 95% this month, a COVID-induced free fall that already has shelved some projects and may delay construction of a proposed new terminal.

Cash reserves and the federal CARES Act money will soften the blow, said Kevin Foley, executive director and general manager of the Des Moines airport. But the airport still is reviewing all projects to see if they should be delayed.

The biggest project, the new terminal, still awaits final financing that Foley has said could hinge on Congress approving an increase in a limit on local airport fees. 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao late Tuesday announced $70.5 million in CARES aid to Iowa airports, including about $23 million each to the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids airports.

The Des Moines airport now is stark; parking lots are nearly empty of cars and few passengers wheel suitcases into the terminal.

About 200 people take flights each day, and that includes the crews, staffers told the airport board Tuesday. The airport as of Monday had seen 671 departures canceled this month.

Passenger traffic had fallen in the last half of March, but quickly dropped to 30% of normal before leveling off at 5% of the usual traffic now, Foley said. 

After several years of record traffic, the airport usually serves 8,000 passengers a day, half of them boarding flights.

Nationally, 94,000 passengers boarded planes Saturday, a new low for the outbreak. Normally, 2 million would have boarded, Foley added.

The Des Moines airport has closed some parking areas, nearly all restaurants and bars and the entire Concourse A. 

Cedar Rapids sees drop in traffic, may lose Frontier

The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids also has seen a drop of 90% to 95% in passenger traffic, said Pam Hinman, director of marketing and communications. 

That steep drop came after what was on track to be a record March under normal circumstances, Hinman said. Traffic was up 25% in January over the previous January, and 30% in February. 

Airlines already are scrambling to get exemptions from some of the rules in the CARES Act, which will funnel $58 billion in grants and loans to the industry. 

So far, Des Moines hasn’t lost any airlines during the downturn.

Hinman said Frontier Airlines has applied to stop service to the Cedar Rapids airport through at least June 10.

“The airlines are probably the industry that is taking the biggest hit from the virus,” Foley said.

Getting that service back later could be tough, Foley said. “The competition to get service back will be twice as brutal as it used to be,” he added.

Allegiant Air applied to at least reduce flight frequencies through September, but is expected to keep serving the Quad Cities airport in Moline, Ill., airport spokeswoman Ashleigh Johnston said. 

The Quad Cities airport expects its passenger count to be down 90% this month after a 46% drop year-to-year in March, Johnston said.

Airlines are offering fewer flights. There are perhaps 100 vehicles in the parking lot, and some of those belong to airport workers, Johnston said. Crews are still working, but have shifted to painting the parking lot and other maintenance work that is hard to do when the terminal is in full use.

The Moline airport will receive $8 million from the federal CARES Act grants.

Quad Cities has not had confirmed COVID-19 cases at the airport, Johnston said.

Allegiant delays $50M Des Moines base

In Des Moines, Allegiant’s plan to open a $50 million, 66-job crew base has been delayed until at least July. The airline’s planned flights to Chicago Midway and Memphis have been delayed until next year, Foley said. 

Some analysts are predicting that the air industry will be half of what it used to be coming out of the pandemic, Foley said. International flights may struggle to fill seats. Many families may take car trips instead, Foley said. 

The fallout involving the new terminal is likely to be a hot topic in Des Moines.

The current terminal was built in 1948. Replacing it has been a top priority of Central Iowa business groups.

That support goes beyond business representatives wanting a quick way to visit clients. The most recent study showed the Des Moines airport supports 7,156 jobs, $271 million in annual payroll, and $644 million in annual economic output.

New Des Moines terminal eight years away, or more?

At best, the new terminal would be in place in another eight years. “It depends on the CARES Act” and how much aid Des Moines gets from the federal government, Foley said in an interview with Iowa Capital Dispatch. 

“There’s a good chance it will be delayed,” Foley said of the airport terminal.

The airports are important to the economy around the state. Iowa’s regional airports support 20,000 jobs and provide a $2.3 billion annual boost to the economy, the Regional Airline Association reports. 

The Des Moines airport board delayed some repair projects Tuesday. But board members voted to move ahead with the construction of a coffee stand/bar in the main concourse, even though the $90,000 price tag was nearly double the original estimate.

Finance director Brian Mulcahy said the airport has some investments maturing soon and solid reserves in the bank. Still, much of what happens now will depend on the federal assistance, he added. And some other projects still may be delayed. Others may be accelerated to take advantage of the lack of crowds in the terminal. 

Airport shuffles staff, closes restaurants, automates parking payments

There have been other temporary changes at the Des Moines airport.

Parking lot cashiers have been replaced by credit card scanners for now. One parking-lot shuttle runs in the morning and one in the afternoon. Friedrichs Coffee is the only restaurant open past security. The airport is thinking about cutting back on janitorial services, Foley said. 

The airport has not confirmed a case of COVID-19 on its grounds. Two workers who helped perform CPR on a passenger from Florida were isolated for nearly two weeks, but tested negative. Those who can are working at home. 

Cedar Rapids also has not had any COVID cases at the airport, Hinman said. 

The Eastern Iowa Airport parking lot in February, before the outbreak of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Clint Gosch)

The nearly deserted Eastern Iowa Airport parking lot on the weekend of April 4. (Photo courtesy of Clint Gosch/Eastern Iowa Airport)

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.