Dubuque airport adjusting course to avoid impact of national challenges

Airport and business leaders are urgently asking local companies and residents to use Dubuque Regional Airport to avoid workforce and air fleet troubles on the horizon.

In a recent presentation to the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors, Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Molly Grover and Dubuque Regional Airport Director Todd Dalsing highlighted a suite of industrywide patterns that are bad news for local commercial air service.

They insisted the challenges didn’t spell doom.

“The Dubuque Regional Airport is open for business,” Grover said. “They’re open for business tomorrow. They are here next week, next year.”

But they said local flying patterns need to pick up for Dubuque to compete with other regional airports for diminishing resources.

First, airlines are phasing out the kind of 50-seat jets that fly in and out of Dubuque twice a day.

“We know that American Airlines, our current commercial carrier, is retiring half their 50-seat fleet by fall of 2022,” Grover said. “Certainly, that’s a huge challenge.”

Also, like many industries, commercial airlines face significant staffing shortages.

“Since the pandemic started, over 50,000 airline employees — many of those pilots — are no longer with the airlines as they were pre-COVID,” Grover said. “You can do a lot of things in the airline industry to adapt. But the one thing you can’t do when you have pilot shortages is fly planes.”

Fuel prices that affect individuals doubly affect airlines, according to Grover. So, current high prices are leading to weaker financial performance for them.

While leisure travel is back up from the pandemic — “It’s being dubbed revenge travel,” Grover said — business travel has not rebounded with it.

“It is much more profitable for the airlines to do business travel,” she said. “They make a lot more money per seat. And business travel is recurring.”

All of this together is leading airlines’ network planners to scrutinize more closely where they send jets and how often.

“They’re looking at load factor — the fuller the plane, the more profitable the airline,” Grover said. “They’re looking at yield: how much money they’re making per seat. Pennies matter. The third thing is advance bookings.”

In 2019, Dubuque Regional Airport boasted three American Airlines flights per day, at an average of 75% full. So far in 2022, Grover said, the airport has two flights per day, which average a 65% passenger list.

“Dubuque is underperforming in all three metrics airlines consider when scheduling flights and locating planes and pilots,” she said. “And we’re being compared not just to ourselves. We are competing, in Dubuque, with 235 regional airports with regional jet aircraft.”

And regional airports have been dropping like flies in recent years, according to Grover.

“Almost 70 regional airports since COVID (began) have lost or are losing service,” she said. “Those are regional markets that look like Dubuque.”

Despite all of that, Grover said a little improvement would go a long way, giving her — and the Air Service Task Force on which she serves — some hope.

“Dubuque can demonstrate travel demand for network planners by increasing passengers by three people per flight, per day,” she said. “That would close that 10% gap (in load factor) to make us competitive with our peer markets.”

To that end, the task force — made up of representatives from some of the area’s biggest employers and elected officials — has shifted gears on the FlyDBQ1st marketing campaign it already started.

“We want to make sure the public, the business community, everyone in our catchment area understands the importance and what’s at stake here,” Grover said.

The marketing campaign still features the same locals — Grover, Greater Dubuque Development Corp. Executive Director Rick Dickinson and Anderson Sainci, Dubuque School Board member and the director of the City of Dubuque’s Office of Shared Prosperity and Neighborhood Support — with a statement starting with “I fly Dubuque…” But the quote from each is much more urgent.

Grover went from “… because there’s no place like home” to “… to buy local, so it’s not bye local.” Dickinson went from “… because it’s convenient” to “… today to keep local air service for tomorrow.” Sainci went from “… because it supports our local economy” to “… to maintain all local air service options.”

The group also has turned to local businesses to express the urgency.

“We meet with businesses and ask that they alter their policy for travel,” Dalsing said.

He also made the cost calculator on the airport’s website more prominent.

“I think you’d be very surprised — especially now with the high price of fuel, the tolls, the miles, the parking — that it might be $100 less for a ticket flying out of Chicago, but when you look at that calculator, Dubuque is actually less cost,” he said.

Grover said the airport itself was in no danger, since commercial flights only make up 3% of its operations. The airport also still has the $775,000 Small Community Air Service Development Program grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to negotiate expanding air service to include a route to and from Denver.

However, she said local commercial air service could be impacted without a communitywide effort.