SOUTH BEND – Even with the pilot shortage still lingering, South Bend International Airport is on track to reach passenger totals not seen since 2019.
“We’re going to approach or exceed 2019, which is our best in 15 years,” said Mike Daigle, the airport’s executive director. “We’ve had double-digit increases in eight out of nine months so far this year.”
February was the only month that fell short of a double-digit increase, registering a 9.56 percent increase from February 2022, Daigle said, noting that momentum appeared to pick up in August and September, when year-over-year increases reached nearly 20 percent.
Summer 2022: How the South Bend Airport is dealing with crew shortages and how it’s affecting flights
“There is some recovery in business travel, but the market is also more loyal to the airport,” Daigle explained, adding that business and leisure travelers are choosing the convenience and proximity of South Bend over the distance and hassles that can come flying out of Chicago or other places.
No one knows the exact breakdown of passengers using the airport for business or leisure travel, but Jeff Rea, president and CEO of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce, suspects most of the growth is from leisure travelers.
“I think there’s still pent-up demand for leisure from the pandemic,” Rea said. “Business travel isn’t quite back yet, and it may never be back to where it was.”
That’s because businesspeople and others are increasingly using the teleconferencing technology they’ve grown accustomed to during the pandemic, said Rea, who believes there’s still a lot to be said for in-person business meetings.
In the first nine months of the year, the airport reported 263,095 boardings, compared to 230,581 through September 2022. And based on that pace, Daigle believes the airport could reach or possibly surpass 417,929 passengers. who used the airport in 2019
“We’re up 14% for the year and we’re picking up speed,” Daigle said. At this rate, the airport will end 2023 with 416,569 passengers, slightly below 2019’s total.
Besides the addition of daily service to Detroit by Delta Airlines in September, airlines are using larger planes at the airport so they can carry more passengers without necessarily offering additional flights, explained Julie Curtis, the airport’s vice president of marketing and air services development. .
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In addition, there has been continued growth in special event services by destination, meaning airlines are offering direct service from Washington, D.C., and New York, for example, to accommodate Notre Dame fans who would like to fly to football games , Curtis added.
Conversely, airlines also offered direct service from Los Angeles to South Bend for USC fans who wanted to come to the Oct. 14 game against the Fighting Irish, Curtis said, noting that flights for the event were scheduled before the season.
In addition to larger aircraft and growth in special event travel, Daigle also believes part of the growth is due to the 12 direct flights to tourist destinations such as Las Vegas and Orlando/Sanford and airline hubs such as Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. Carolina, which connect to major cities in the country and around the world.
The airport provides a calculator intended to help travelers make an informed decision about the time and costs—parking, tolls and gas—of detouring from South Bend International to Chicagoland’s Midway or O’Hare airports.
When area travelers choose to fly out of South Bend instead of driving to another airport, it also helps in ongoing efforts to convince airlines to offer more seats and destinations here than at any other airport in the country, according to Daigle and Curtis.
And more service here benefits not only travelers but the economy as a whole, as arriving visitors are likely to rent cars here and spend money at area hotels and restaurants, Daigle said, noting that the most recent study shows the airport provides annual economic impact of $1.7 billion.
If recovering airport travel provides some benefit now to the region’s economy, it also carries the potential for future benefits because it is one of the factors businesses consider when weighing the location of a new office or factory.
“Commercial links are an important part of our commercial advertising,” said Rea. “The second part is to have an airport that can support private corporate jets, especially as more companies have multinational investments.”
Email Tribune staff writer Ed Semmler at [email protected].