Suspension of Dubuque flights extended without relief package

Todd Dalsing

The failure of federal leaders to craft a new COVID-19 relief package will lead to a prolonged suspension of commercial flights at Dubuque Regional Airport.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker recently announced that the company will discontinue services in additional U.S. markets and extend the suspension of flights in others.

Dubuque Regional Airport Director Todd Dalsing said this will directly affect flight service to and from Dubuque.

“To my understanding, November (flights) will now be suspended,” he said.

The Dubuque airport already is in the midst of a temporary suspension of commercial flights, which started on Oct. 6.

Flights originally were expected to resume in the first week of November. Airport officials also had expressed hope that flights would continue in December and January, noting that American Airlines would reassess the aviation market on a monthly basis.

Now, November service has been scrapped, and the hope for flights in the following months has dimmed. Dalsing acknowledged that key indicators present a grim outlook.

“Demand is still down about 70% (nationally) from a year ago,” he said. “Until those numbers get back to pre-COVID days, I feel the suspensions are going to continue.”

Dalsing noted, however, that a sudden shift in the political landscape — such as an agreement on a federal stimulus package or a leadership change brought about by the upcoming election — could change that timeline.

Major airlines in 2020 have been propped up by massive government stimulus packages, which offered key support as air travel declined dramatically.

The initial round of federal COVID-19 support took effect in March. In return for the financial assistance, airlines were prevented from making job cuts and required to maintain minimum levels of service through Sept. 30.

While Democrats and Republicans have agreed on the need for a new stimulus package, they have failed to find common ground. Repeated failures to pass a new bill prompted Parker to announce that American Airlines intends to significantly reduce services to the large communities it serves and prolonging suspensions in the smaller ones.

Dalsing said last week that about 30 workers in the terminal “could potentially be impacted” by the suspension of flights. Many of these workers are employed by tenants of the airport rather than the airport itself, making it difficult for Dalsing to assess precisely how many workers could be affected.

He acknowledged that multiple American Airlines employees who work in Dubuque are on furlough and the cancellation of November flights likely would extend their time away from work.

Those who booked flights in November likely will be contacted soon, Dalsing said.

“These individuals will be contacted directly by American and be given the option to travel to another airport,” he said.

In addition to affecting the business traveler, the prolonged suspension of flights contribute to the woes of the ailing tourism industry.

“The airport has always been a big asset for us,” said Keith Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque. “With more of these flights suspended, we are definitely going to feel the sting.”

While he acknowledged that it is impossible to predict the future, Rahe said many in the tourism industry do not expect a return to normalcy until the third quarter of 2021.

He said the release of a COVID-19 vaccine likely would mark a significant turning point but cautioned that the industry won’t fully recover until people feel comfortable traveling again.

“Whether we are talking about airports or travel in general, the big key is to get that consumer confidence back,” Rahe said.