There are signs that air travel, with lasting changes, is ready to take off again

First in an occasional series on the future of transportation in the region

After a bad year of business, Farmingdale travel agents Steven and Lisa Gardner’s phone started ringing again in January.

A Hicksville resident whose trip to Ireland last year repeatedly was postponed asked about finally booking flights. A Farmingdale woman wanted to take her kids to Disney World in Florida as consolation for seeing their friends so little during the pandemic. More and more calls have been coming in.

“People are starting to get the bug to want to go traveling,” Steven Gardner said. “Once it starts to come back, I think it’ll come back big.”

That would be a major turnaround for agents like the Gardners and for the broader travel industry, which was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdowns, border closures and the threat of catching and spreading a deadly virus brought flights to a halt worldwide, causing airline and airport revenue to plummet and putting tens of thousands out of work.

Now, with vaccine distribution speeding up, industry experts predict a steady revival of air travel over the next few years. But flying will be different when passengers return, industry experts said.

Masks on planes, COVID-19-testing requirements, proof of vaccination and other safety protocols are likely features of air travel for the foreseeable future. Border restrictions will make it hard and costly to get to some international destinations. And business travel might not fully rebound, which could prompt airlines to rejigger routes and prices to attract leisure flyers instead.

“We’ll never recover to the way it was before,” Steven Gardner predicted. “But we will recover. It’ll just be different.”

Airport daily numbers dipped

Area airports fell quiet at the height of the pandemic last spring. Kennedy Airport counted only 2,700 passengers a day on average last April, down from 175,000 in April 2019, according to statistics from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. LaGuardia Airport’s average daily passenger counts last April dropped to 1,200, from 88,200 the previous April.

“Those levels of decrease are just stunning,” said Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton.

The Port Authority, which operates those airports and other facilities, estimates it lost $1.7 billion in 2020.

At Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, the number of daily departures fell from 20 pre-pandemic to just one each day early last May. Passenger-based revenues for things such as landing fees fell from around $11 million in 2019 to $4 million in 2020, according to MacArthur Commissioner Shelley LaRose-Arken.

But the rebound already has begun, as passenger volumes at the three airports have risen.

The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 1 million passengers a day nationwide on 26 days in March, up from only three days in January, according to TSA statistics.

MacArthur Airport data shows the number of people clicking on online ads for the airport on average each day increased by more than 60% from December through February. There are now around 11 daily departures from the airport.

“We know Long Islanders want to travel,” LaRose-Arken said. “Summer looks very strong.”

Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt said airlines are seeing a growing number of bookings. “No one is popping open bottles of Champagne yet,” he said. “But everything I’m hearing from airlines is positive.”

Cotton noted many of those new bookings are by people over 65, an age group that, perhaps not coincidentally, has been eligible for COVID-19 vaccines for months.

“The availability of vaccinations is going to be the pivot for the recovery of air travel,” Cotton said. “What we don’t know exactly is how steep the curve will be. But I have no doubt that we will get to pre-COVID levels.”

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, does not expect passenger volumes to reach 2019 levels until 2023 at the earliest, according to a report released in March.

International flights might be more expensive

International travel restrictions, quarantine requirements and the uneven pace of vaccinations around the globe are likely to remain impediments to travel abroad for years, said Harteveldt, who is president of the Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco.

Plus, there are the new coronavirus variants emerging worldwide, which could dampen interest in traveling internationally, said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management at New York University.

Major gateway airports such as Kennedy likely will be the first to resume hosting many international flights, Harteveldt said. But those flights could be more expensive, he said, as air carriers might discontinue low-fare trans-Atlantic routes.

The next few years likely will focus on domestic flights catering to leisure travelers, which Moss said he expects to appeal to Long Islanders.

“If you’ve been locked up in your mansion in Locust Valley, you may want to go somewhere, no matter how big your house,” he said.

One Long Islander who’s ready to fly again is Theresa Popov. The Bethpage resident has canceled three trips since the pandemic began — a cruise departing from New Orleans, a wedding in Jamaica, and a family getaway to the Dominican Republic.

Three nixed vacations was enough. Her family flew to Aruba in March.

“I don’t know if I would feel completely comfortable about a crowded flight,” she said before she left. But, “I’m just so fed up not being able to go anywhere for so long that I think we’re just really craving it.”

Businesses cutting back on travel

While vacation travelers are likely to return, the future of business travel — a key revenue stream for airlines — is murkier.

Harteveldt said a recent survey found that 9% of corporate travel bookers do not expect to return to pre-COVID-19 levels of spending on business travel.

With the rise of videoconferencing technology during the pandemic, companies “have learned how to save money,” Moss said. “They’ve found out that business travel is a vast expense that can be brought down.”

Anton Posner, chief executive of a Commack logistics company, said the firm has saved around $50,000 on travel and entertainment costs during the pandemic.

While he expects to resume flying for work again, he said he likely will look for new opportunities to keep saving on travel costs going forward.

“Even more now, it’s going to make us think harder about: Do we really need to do this trip?” he asked. “Can we accomplish this without traveling?”

A decline in business travel would have major implications for airlines.

“The U.S. airline industry has been built primarily around serving business travelers,” Harteveldt said. If they don’t come back, airlines may retool, nixing routes popular with such travelers and replacing them with flights to vacation destinations. That would mean more competition between airlines for leisure travelers, which could help drive down ticket prices, he said.

For now, data collected by the Airlines Reporting Corp. suggests that domestic airfare remains a bargain. The air travel settlement and data services provider tracks ticket prices for domestic round-trip flights booked by travel agents. The average price for such a ticket in February was $346 — up from $335 in January, but still way down from February 2020, when the average price was $488.

But companies would be hard-pressed to replicate on Zoom every benefit of an in-person meeting.

“With somebody at a meal, or four hours of golf, or a ballgame for a couple of hours, they’re a captive audience,” said Howard Belgrod, a Massapequa Park resident who used to fly as much as once a month to meet clients and attend conferences on behalf of the Port Washington logistics company where he works.

Since the pandemic began, Belgrod’s job hasn’t taken him much beyond the home office in his basement. But he expects to fly again for work, eventually.

“How long can you be on the phone with somebody, right?” he said. “It pales in comparison to being there and being face to face.”

Masks will remain mandatory

As passengers return, masks could remain mandatory in airports and on planes for another year or two, Harteveldt said. If business travel declines, airlines might shrink the size of business class cabins and get rid of some extra-legroom seats. And proof of being COVID-19-free or vaccinated will remain an essential feature of international travel for some time, Gardner said.

While such changes might prove inconvenient, others could improve the air travel experience. Airport operators might feel pressure to keep up enhanced cleaning protocols, Hartveldt said.

LaRose-Arken predicted that airport design features meant to protect passenger health, such as air purification systems and antimicrobial films on high-touch surfaces, also will remain.

Harteveldt said the aversion to crowds many developed during the pandemic might stick around, too, making major airports less appealing to travelers.

“Some of the emotional scarring that we have experienced, the sense of fear that we have developed and distrust around other people will linger with us,” he said.

“In a way this could be good for airports like Islip,” Harteveldt added, referring to MacArthur.

Local jobs could return

As air travel returns, it should bring lost local jobs back with it. At the height of the pandemic, more than 4,000 security guards, cabin cleaners and other members of the 32BJ SEIU who worked at Kennedy and LaGuardia were either furloughed or laid off, according to Rob Hill, the union’s vice president.

Andrew Campbell, executive director of the Council for Airport Opportunity, which helps job seekers land positions at Port Authority airports, said the council used to see around 400 such job listings a month.

“Now we’re lucky to see 50 to 60,” he said.

And Gardner said numerous competitor travel agencies on Long Island — already struggling amid the rise of online travel booking sites — went out of business during the pandemic.

But Campbell said the airports have continued to hire for jobs in cargo areas — a reflection of the surge of online shopping during the pandemic. He expects that to continue.

The TSA announced plans earlier this year to hire 6,000 airport security workers by this summer. Department of Transportation statistics show U.S. airlines added more than 10,000 employees from December to January. And Hill said more than 1,000 of the laid-off or furloughed union workers have gotten their jobs back since the height of the pandemic last spring.

“We anticipate that recovery will continue gradually,” he said.