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2020 clobbered airport, but rebound in sight

News File Photo Passengers exit a flight into Alpena from Detroit in this January 2019 News archive photo.

ALPENA — To say last year was a bumpy ride for the Alpena County Regional Airport may be an understatement.

After a strong start to the year and the opening of its new terminal, the COVID-19 pandemic brought business to a screeching halt for months.

Later months showed glimmers of hope as more people began to travel, and Airport Manager Steve Smigelski says he is hopeful the new year will be more in-line with years prior to 2020.

The airport recorded 6,427 paying passengers — or enplanements — last year, which, in a normal year, would make the airport ineligible for a $1 million subsidy from the federal government. The airport usually receives that funding if it eclipses 10,000 enplanements in a calendar year, which it does a majority of the time.

Despite missing its goal, the airport will still receive the $1 million, as money from federal coronavirus relief programs was allocated to essential service airports such as Alpena.

In 2018, 11,174 paying passengers utilized the airport in Alpena. The numbers climbed to 12,391 in 2019 when Delta Airlines and SkyWest tweaked prices to make the airport more attractive to travelers and competitive with other airports.

The strong numbers remained in the first two months of 2020, with in excess of 900 enplanements in January and February, but that is when the government stay-at-home orders began to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus and the floor fell out.

In March, enplanements fell to fewer than 500 and passenger numbers cratered, with only 308 enplanements combined over the following three months.

“Those months were brutal,” Smigelski said. “Early in the pandemic, there just weren’t many places for people to go, really. Everywhere was shut down, and everything was closed.”

In the late summer and fall, numbers began to climb. Smigelski said the rebound was better in Alpena than most airports in the state experienced, including those in big cities.

“Our numbers recovered, and we were able to get up to above 50% load factor,” he said, meaning planes were half full. “Most places haven’t come back that far, yet.”

As more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine and life begins to return to normal, Smigelski thinks numbers will grow back to where they were two years ago. He said the airlines, government, and travelers deserve thanks for helping the airport through the lean months.

“I want to thank the people who trusted the airport and airline to keep them safe,” Smigelski said. “I think, this year, we’ll continue to see that support as more people get the vaccine and more people begin to travel. I’m optimistic about where we’re headed.”

Until then, Smigelski said, the airport and SkyWest staff will continue to clean and sterilize the facility and jets and all safety procedures will continue.

“Everyone has (gone) above and beyond what was recommended to make sure people were safe,” Smigelski said, “and that is something we are going to continue to do.”

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