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Surge in leisure travel helps nudge North Dakota airports toward recovery

A recent surge in leisure travel is buoying passenger counts at terminals across the state.

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Airport personnel tend to an Allegiant Airbus A320 bound for Las Vegas at the Grand Forks International Airport September 2, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS — It’s been a long year and counting for pilots, airlines and airport administrators across North Dakota.

Ryan Riesinger, the executive director at Grand Forks International Airport, knows all about it. Passenger traffic has been down since the start of the pandemic, muffled by safety concerns and anti-virus regulations. Delta Airlines, one of the airport’s chief carriers, had been capping its planes at 75% capacity until earlier this year. The Canadian border’s closure has cut down on travelers, too.

But in recent months, signs point to a world gliding back toward normal.

Well, kind of.

"I think, especially when summer came, some of the restrictions were lifted, and people really did try to get out,” Riesinger said, describing a recent surge in leisure travel that’s buoying passenger counts in Grand Forks, throughout North Dakota and beyond.

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That shift has come as some travel restrictions have begun to fall away, helping numbers further. And, Riesinger points out, Delta Airlines is restoring a fourth daily flight out of Grand Forks on Sept. 13.

In Grand Forks, the number of July boardings this year sits at about 6,000. That’s far higher than the roughly 2,250 last year, during the early months of the pandemic, but it’s still about 39% lower than 2019 numbers (Riesinger points out that Grand Forks leisure traffic typically peaks during the winter as snowbirds and sun-seekers head south).

That’s among the biggest gaps for commercial airports in the state — with recovery coming much faster in other places. In Fargo, for example, the difference between pre-pandemic July boarding numbers and this year’s figures is only 1.3%. Jamestown’s airport this year notched its busiest July in at least a decade.

But experts in the aviation industry say that, around the state, there’s still reason to watch the coming months carefully. While leisure travel is rebounding, business travel still looks relatively flat — kept down by safety concerns and work-from-home policies. And the resurgence of a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus has some travelers rethinking their plans.

There’s been an explosive growth in the number of infections throughout the country, but particularly in the American southeast. States and communities with low vaccination rates have been particularly vulnerable, and the resulting surge in cases has cast doubt on how quickly the country will exit the pandemic.

In North Dakota, those cases are on the rise as well, with hospitalizations due to COVID rising more than 70% in late August.

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RELATED: North Dakota sees sharp rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations

The resurgence of the virus has shifted worldwide travel policies that could cancel Americans’ plans. Late last month, European Union leaders recommended that member nations restrict access to U.S. travelers.

“I think over the last two to three weeks, we’re seeing a significant number of people cancelling trips again,” Shawn Dobberstein, executive director at Fargo’s Hector International Airport, recently said. “I think now there's just cautious travelers now. Maybe they've decided to forgo their trips coming up."

Aviation officials are continuing to watch flights carefully, for shifts related to the new, contagious COVID variant and anything else that could shift passenger numbers. Airlines weathered the last year, but another deep cut into revenue could be a disaster.

"The stakes are pretty high. If we go into a double-dip recession, that could be devastating for aviation and the airline industry, if we go back to what occurred in February and March of 2020,” said Kyle Wanner, director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission. “If something like that were to occur again for whatever reason, it would be devastating.”

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