While travel at the Des Moines International Airport increased between May and June, July numbers are remaining near prior month’s levels. With confirmed coronavirus cases continuing to rise, airport officials are beginning to express concern about earlier recovery projections. Photo by Duane Tinkey.

The Des Moines International Airport is seeing small increases in the number of travelers passing through its gates, but as the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise, officials say earlier projections of reaching up to 65% capacity by the end of the year may be a “little aggressive.”

Air travel plummeted in March as states shut down to slow the spread of the pandemic, and in April, Congress approved the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security act, with $10 billion earmarked to offset losses at U.S. airports. The Des Moines International Airport received $23 million of the $70 million allocated to Iowa airports as part of the CARES Act funding.

As states began to loosen restrictions and reopened in May, airports began to see small improvements in the number of travelers passing through their gates.

Des Moines recorded 31,320 passengers in May, down 88% compared with May 2019. There was marked improvement in June, with 63,688 passengers, down about 76% from June of last year. That improvement continued into July, especially the July 4 weekend, when air travel was down 64% from the prior year, airport spokesperson Kayla Kovarna said.

But for the rest of July so far, numbers are hovering around June levels, she said.

“While it’s a significant drop month to month [from May to June], it is still down compared to when we were looking at 265,609 passengers in June 2019,” Kovarna said. 

She said initial projections that the airport could return to 65% percent capacity by the end of 2020 may be a “little aggressive,” given the continued increases in confirmed cases of the coronavirus. 

“But we’re watching it really closely,” Kovarna said.

Iowa reported another 368 confirmed cases on Monday, raising the total number of confirmed cases in the state to more than 35,800. More than 750 people have died. Nationally, more than 3.3 million confirmed cases have been reported, with more than 135,000 deaths.

Another factor the airport considers is what destinations are popular for Iowans, she said.

“Our top destinations, many of them are in the state of Florida,” Kovarna said. “Phoenix, Arizona, is a big one as well. So we’re not looking only at what’s happening in Iowa, but where Iowans want to go, and is it a risk level?”

Nichelle Barrett, a spokesperson for American Airlines, said late Monday that the airline is not making any changes to its Des Moines flights because of spiking COVID-19 cases in other states.

Dan Landson, a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, also said that no changes are planned, and that demand is increasing to locations where restrictions have been lifted. Officials with Allegiant Air said that no changes are planned but that the airline is consistently monitoring demand and will adjust its schedule when necessary.

As the airport continues to adapt to the changing landscape caused by the coronavirus, Kovarna said it continues to implement FAA recommendations to keep passengers safe, such as frequent sanitizing and encouraging use of masks and hand sanitizer.

“At the end of the day, we're doing everything we can to keep passengers safe,” Kovarna said. “But it's truly up to everyone to stop the spread, so we request that all passengers wear a mask as they’re entering the terminal and sanitizing their hands as frequently as possible, because it’s really up to each individual to stop the spread.”

Staffing at the airport had returned to normal in June, but smaller departments, such as the building engineer team, have reverted back to a leaner schedule where fewer are working at the same time to reduce the risk of exposure, Kovarna said.

“Depending on how cases continue to increase, or if they flatten or decrease, we will adjust staffing as needed,” she said.

Concourse A, which had been closed, has fully reopened in recent weeks as flights returned, she said.

The airport also moved forward with construction of a remote coffee shop and bar at Gate C5, with it scheduled to open Wednesday.

While there has been no confirmed coronavirus cases among airport staff, a parking vendor employee tested positive in May, and an employee of the airport restaurant Portermill tested positive last month. Neither person came in contact with anyone else. The parking vendor employee was off but did visit an area in the parking office, and that area was sanitized as a precaution. The restaurant worker had not been at work for several days, Kovarna said.

She described the lack of contact by the two employees as “fortunate,” and said, “Knock on wood, we’re continuing to stay strong and there have been no other reported cases of confirmed COVID.”