Dubuque airport’s passenger numbers climb in 2021, but still lag below pre-pandemic levels

Passenger counts at Dubuque Regional Airport increased significantly during the second year impacted by COVID-19, but they still fell significantly below pre-pandemic levels.

A total of 17,952 passengers were transported on commercial flights in 2021, according to airport officials.

That represented a 62% increase of 2020’s total of 11,050, as both years were dramatically impacted by the pandemic and related reductions in flights. Yet, the 2021 total was only about half of 2019’s total of 36,592 passengers.

Still, Airport Director Todd Dalsing said the local increase in passengers in 2021 was encouraging.

“Leisure travel is pleasantly returning,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot more people who are traveling for vacation who couldn’t last year.”

In 2020, American Airlines, the sole commercial airline that flies out of Dubuque’s airport, started cutting local flights in April in response to the start of the pandemic. Following repeated reductions, the airline suspended all flights from the airport from early October to early January.

In 2021, the number of local American Airlines flights climbed somewhat. In January, flights resumed but were kept to one per day before being increased to two per day in April. In November, American Airlines increased the number of flights to three per day. The airport’s busiest month in 2021 came in November with 2,443 passengers.

But the number of local flights decreased in December to one on four days of the week and two on the other days.

Dalsing said the scarcity of flights largely stems from a nationwide shortage in pilots. Many pilots have retired during the pandemic, and airlines struggling with open positions are forced to prioritize where they send their pilots and planes.

“They are going to schedule flights where it is going to be the most profitable,” Dalsing said. “Dubuque is one of hundreds of regional airports trying to get those flights.”

The local data largely corresponds with national trends. While full-year figures for 2021 have not been released yet, the most-recent federal data shows that passenger counts through the first nine months of 2021 were up by about 60% over the first nine months of 2020. But 2021’s count still was 38% below the first nine months of 2019.

While Dalsing is pleased with the increase in passengers, he noted that business travel continues to lag — and that’s a travel segment that long has heavily used the Dubuque airport.

“Before the pandemic, the Dubuque market was 80% business and 20% leisure,” Dalsing said. “Now, that is reversed. We have seen those numbers flip around.”

And that impacts bottom lines. Both the airport and airline make more money from business travel passengers, who typically are more willing to pay for high-priced, last-minute tickets, nonstop flights and premium seating than leisure travelers.

“There is more money in business travel,” Dalsing said. “Without that, we are a less profitable airport for airlines.”

Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Molly Grover said she knows of several local businesses that have not returned to their prior levels of business travel, instead opting for using virtual meetings to conduct business.

“Our market has always been more of a corporate market than a leisure market,” she said. “Some have resumed business travel, but others have put those decisions on hold in terms of how their travel policies are going to return.”

Prior to the pandemic, staff with the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium would regularly fly out of the Dubuque airport to attend conferences around the country.

Kurt Strand, president and CEO of the museum, said nearly all of those conferences were held online in 2021.

“It’s all been virtual,” he said. “At this point, there really hasn’t been any need to conduct business travel.”

Strand said business travel should rebound at least somewhat in 2022, with some conferences already announcing their return to in-person formats.

Dalsing said he hopes 2022 brings a continued increase in passengers and flights in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic waning, though he added that the number of flights offered per day in Dubuque likely will continue to fluctuate with demand.

“If you want to see air service continue to grow, you have to use your local regional airport,” he said. “I think we will see it be at two flights per day during the winter, and then we will see where the demand is at for the spring and summer.”