Dubuque Regional Airport: Looking back and forward

John Tallent is grounded as are other staff members at Medical Associates Clinic and others throughout the area.

As the CEO of Dubuque’s fourth largest employer, Tallent flew out of the Dubuque Regional Airport four to five times per year for business, plus trips for vacation. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have canceled all business-related travel in order to lower the risk of employee exposure to the virus.

“I had business trips planned in March and April to Dallas and Naples which were both canceled.” Tallent said.

He doesn’t foresee traveling until fall for an annual business trip to Washington, D.C.

The inability to depart from the Dubuque airport isn’t the only problem that Medical Associates Clinic has faced during the airport shut-down.

“The shut down has impacted our ability to hire badly needed medical staff as we aren’t able to fly medical recruits to Dubuque for interviews,” Tallent said.

Dubuque-area travelers rely on the Dubuque Regional Airport for fast transportation to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport via American Airlines regional carrier Envoy Airlines. The University of Dubuque runs its aviation program out of the airport and plans to add six aircraft to the fleet this year.

Corporate airliners for many of Dubuque’s largest employers are parked at the airport as well. Charter services are available from Sun Country Airlines, with direct flights to Biloxi, Miss., and Laughlin, Nev.

Pre-pandemic, Envoy offered three flights per day. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the flight schedule was revised to one flight per day four days per week in early May 2020.

“Our passenger counts dropped drastically after March 17, 2020,” said Todd Dalsing, airport director.

“American Airlines began reducing flights across the board both domestically and internationally along with states and countries initializing travel bans and quarantines, flight reductions trickled down to the regional airports.”

Dalsing expects to expand to one flight per day five days a week through June.

“It’s a fluid situation. American’s flight schedule begins showing a recovery in mid-June through July 2020, but all is pending on travel demand.”

Airport director since November 2019, Dalsing started at the airport in 1993 and worked his way up through the ranks in various airport jobs including on the ground service crew, in airport operations and as airport manager.

He’s been witness to many changes including renovations, upgrades and now the implementation of pandemic cleaning procedures along with staff and passenger safety measures.

Going West and Other Airport Updates

Plans to add a west-bound route to Denver are in the works. Dalsing said that talks were in progress until the pandemic hit and have been tabled until the airline industry rebounds.

A steady increase in the number of passengers taking three daily flights from Dubuque to O’Hare and returning was not enough to convince American Airlines to add another flight. Community leaders are negotiating with another carrier for the Denver route.

To entice another carrier, a plan was developed involving community partners guaranteeing a certain amount of revenue to an airline if it agrees to provide service. If the revenue of the airline falls below the guarantee, the community would use part of the established fund to pay the airline the difference up to the guaranteed amount.

Establishing the fund was the first order of business and was addressed by the federal grant of $775,000 that was received in February.

Combined with money raised locally by the airport and the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce, the emergency fund stands at $1.3 million to be used to attract a carrier. The grant is good for three years and talks will continue with the carrier.

Bids to upgrade airfield lighting to energy-saving LED and to relocate the electrical vaults went out a few months ago. The $1.9 million project was to be 90 percent covered by Federal funding. Now, because of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the entire project will be covered by Federal funding.

Dalsing spoke about the airport master plan update scheduled to be finished this fall.

“The last update to the master plan was completed in 2004 and they typically are updated every 12 to 15 years.”

The FAA has approved $537,237 for the airport through the Airport Improvement Program. The money in addition to a $55,000 local match would be used to update the master plan.

COVID-19 Airport Updates

To ensure staff and passenger safety, all U.S. airlines have introduced in-depth cleaning of aircraft and use of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. There is a focus on sanitizing the hard surfaces that passengers commonly touch in the cabin including tray tables, arm rests, seat-back screens and pockets, seat belts, window shades and overhead bins. These surfaces are wiped down with a hospital grade EPA-approved disinfectant. Frontline airline personnel are cleaning all surfaces in the airport area.

Most major airlines as of May 2020 require masks for all their personnel and passengers on the flights. New boarding procedures – boarding from the back of the aircraft and trying not to fill middle seats are in effect.

“These will be the standard for every hotel, airport, resort, airline, attraction, restaurant, retail, rental car, meeting venue, event planner, travel adviser, cruise lines and vacation rental in the U.S. So whether you are flying out of Dubuque or Orlando, these standards/guidelines for airports will all be and look the same,” Dalsing said.

The Dubuque Regional Airport has increased targeted touch point cleaning procedures following all CDC and U.S. Travel Association guidelines before and after each flight.

“We are utilizing an electrostatic cleaner which provides an electrical charge to solutions, allowing them to wrap conductive surfaces with an effective and even coverage. Double-charged particles envelope all conductive surfaces. We are also utilizing a hydro-cart cleaning system which makes disinfecting and cleaning of all surfaces such as windows, doors and seating easier,” Dalsing said.

Barriers and social distancing stickers will be used in all airline terminals to remind passengers and guests to stay at least 6 feet apart. While not required, Dalsing said they are strongly recommending passengers and guests wear a face mask while waiting in the Dubuque terminal.

Touch-free Travel

Touch-free travel is the new normal as passengers will experience reduced touching of surfaces, automation and contactless technology to decrease risks and provide safe travel.

“The new Dubuque Regional Airline Terminal building which opened in June 2016 has given us an advantage when it comes to touch-free travel,” said Dalsing. “From curbside to boarding the aircraft, your experience will be as touch-free and as safe as possible.”

The touch-free travel options at the Dubuque airport include:

• Parking: Free parking, no ticket stubs/no cashiers.

• Terminal: Automated doors. In addition to regular cleaning, touch point procedures in place between flights.

• Checking in: American Airlines app helps for the entire flight. If you have a carry-on bag, proceed directly to screening. Checked Baggage – Show ID, pass bag to agent. Claim ticket available on American app.

• TSA checkpoint: Frontline TSA employees wear full PPE and conduct routine cleaning and disinfecting of bins and security screening equipment after passenger use.

• Sterile hold room: Social distant terminal seating available, cleaned and disinfected after every flight.

• Bathrooms: Doorless entry, automated equipment and toilets/soap dispenser/hand dryer.

• Boarding: Self-scan boarding pass. Procedures in place will board from back of the plane to front.

• Restaurant: Judy’s Runway Cafe and Catering will follow guidelines set by the U.S. Travel Association/CDC.

• Rental cars: Implementing touchless procedures.