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Air travel takes off to highest levels since the pandemic hit

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WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL)- Air travel is gaining altitude as the highest number of Americans take to the skies, since the pandemic started. Saturday was the tenth straight day the TSA reported screening more than one million passengers at US Airports.

According to the TSA, more than 1.3 million passengers passed through airports nationwide on Saturday alone. TSA officials said they screened 1.4 million passengers the day before, the biggest day for air travel in more than a year.

Still, it is down 41% from the 2.5 million passengers the TSA reported screening on the same day in 2019.

"I think that has to be a good sign of things to come for people to get out and travel," said Kieth Kaspari, Waterloo Regional Airport Director of Aviation.

Typically, this week is a high in traffic volume for airports due to the spring break season.

"The majority of it definitely is leisure travel and spring break is definitely playing into that," Dubuque Regional Airport Director Todd Dalsing said. "After spring break, I expect to see numbers level off a little bit, but I think definitely you'll see an increase as you add more vaccinations and get more comfortable traveling."

96% Decline

In March, Dubuque had three American Airlines flights a day, and Dalsing was in talks with another airline about starting service to Denver.

Then April hit, and the airline industry saw a 96% decline in passenger demand.

"Carriers, not only suspended service routes but reduced them," he said. "Almost 50% of all flights were grounded."

In October, American Airlines dropped flights to Dubuque, and 14 other U.S. cities after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act expired. Flights out of Dubuque resumed on January 6, 2021.

As the numbers start to tick back up, American Airlines will be adding more flights to and from Dubuque, starting April 2.

Kaspari said Waterloo's airport saw a 70% drop in 2020 compared to the calendar year 2019. The airport currently has one daily flight to Chicago, but hopes to resume its pre-pandemic, twice-daily flight to the Windy City schedule as air travel ramps up.

Kaspari said the airport is currently in discussions with American Airlines to make it happen. Kaspari said, "We are hopeful that we will see that sometime in the July or August timeframe."

Taking off into a more hopeful future

Both Kaspari and Dalsing said the uptick in travel has them hoping for a better summer travel season. After a difficult year, they are eager for passengers to feel comfortable enough to start to resume cruising at 30,000 feet.

"With more vaccinations coming to our region and people getting vaccinated and more comfortable with flying, we are seeing some good numbers this week because of spring break," Kaspari said. "I am hoping people feel more comfortable getting back in the air that vaccinations are being rolled out for the general public."

Dalsing expected leisure travel would be the first to return to gates, but said business travel will take a little bit longer.

"One of the big things we're hoping for is to get those business travelers back out there," Dalsing said. "The businesses that we're talking to say it will probably be around the third quarter before they start to resume getting back to travel."

This month's surge is coming as health officials are still cautioning against travel. The CDC recently released updated COVID guidelines for people who have been fully vaccinated against the Corona virus, but the agency does not recommend traveling.

“At this time, the CDC is not adjusting current guidance on travel. We believe these new recommendations are an important first step in our efforts to resume everyday activities in our communities," said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky during a White House COVID-19 Response Team Briefing last week. "However, we remain in the midst of a serious pandemic, and still over 90% of our population is not fully vaccinated. But we are working hard to get there.”

If you do travel, federal law requires you wear a mask the entire time you are in the airport or on the airplane. If not, you may not be allowed on the plane and could also face penalties under federal law.

In Dubuque, Dalsing said face masks will still be required, and aircrafts will routinely be disinfected and cleaned.

Additionally, the Department of Transportation says they are releasing a new campaign to remind travelers of mask requirements on all forms of transportation and terminals.

Some airlines and business groups have asked the Biden administration to develop credentials that would allow travelers to show they have been tested and vaccinated for COVID-19. Airlines hope these documents would relax travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

$4.85 Million Renovations

On April 5, Kaspari said Waterloo Regional Airport is set to begin a summer construction project.

The airport plans to use federal funds to continue pavement reconstruction on an area where large charter aircrafts are typically parked. Crews will also work on the airport's busiest taxiway.

In total, the project is expected to cost around $4.85 million and is expected to be completed around Labor Day.

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