DSM airport traffic exceeds projections

By: - September 9, 2021 4:55 pm

Passengers line up for flights at Des Moines International Airport on July 13, 2021. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Des Moines airport has seen a typical seasonal drop in passengers but traffic still is running about 90% of pre-pandemic levels, a top official said. 

That is higher than expected. 

Kevin Foley, executive director of Des Moines International Airport, said ridership has been ranging from 88% to 92% of 2019 levels in recent weeks.

“When we budgeted, we anticipated we would be back at 70% in December. The recovery was much more rapid than that,” Foley said.

The coronavirus pandemic had reduced traffic to 5% of normal in 2020.

A blip or a trend?

The question is whether the traffic was driven by people with pandemic fatigue who wanted to return to travel, causing a blip, or if the numbers are a trend. 

“Is this just a surge that will subside, or is this the new norm?” Foley asked. 

The waning of summer has softened demand for air tickets some.

“Certainly the number of passengers has declined, but that is normal when school starts,” Foley said. 

Official August ridership numbers from the airlines are expected next week.

Is a business travel surge next?

Foley had said it would take an estimated five years to regain pre-pandemic levels of business travel. In fact, major airlines reduced their revenue projections this week. 

Kevin Foley is the executive director and general manager of Des Moines International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines International Airport)

“We still don’t have a lot of business travel back yet. I’m pretty sure there is some pent-up demand there, too,” Foley said.

Industry sources expect a surge in business travel when more employees return to offices and business operations resume at higher levels at more locations, he added. 

Airport still short of cash for new terminal

The higher-than-expected traffic continues to make the case for a new terminal, Foley said.

Airport officials still are trying to find $200 million to fill out financing for the terminal, which is part of a $500 million airport overhaul. A new entrance and exit recently opened along Fleur Drive, south of the original entrance, for example. 

Airport officials are hoping Congress passes legislation allowing local airports to raise ticket fees. That would allow the airport to issue bonds for the project.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.