54 days from bottom, fog still persists

The “weather” report for RDU International, and for the national commercial aviation industry, remains murky at best.

The good news — and it is good news — is that passenger volumes at RDU Airport have been steadily climbing for nearly two months, and are now more than 3x higher than the low point from earlier this spring.

How far and fast did traffic at RDU (and other airports) fall?

RDU passenger levels through the security checkpoints were actually still up 3% over the previous year for the week ending March 1, 2020. The precipitous drop came almost entirely during the balance of March, as one would expect given the both the suddenness and severity of the pandemic hitting our shores. The biggest fall came during the week ending March 15th:  traffic levels fell from 23% below last year to a more than 70% year-over-year drop.  By March 29th passenger traffic was down over 90%, and remained below that threshold through the end of May.

Mid-April was the absolute low point for RDU, with the number of passengers traveling through TSA security checkpoints down an inconceivable 96.4% for the week ending April 19 compared to the previous year. To put that another way, only 3.6% of the passenger traffic volumes from last year were seen this year at that time.

For the week ending June 8 — the most current week available — traffic was down 87.1% year-over-year. While that is still very low compared to the beginning of the year, it is the best performance since late March — more than two months ago. It also represents the second consecutive week with at least 10% of traffic levels retained, and a comparative improvement (lower year-over-year reduction) of more than 3x the mid-April levels.

So what happens next

Businesses of all types face planning, investment, and execution challenges in uncertain environments. I have been trying to come up with a comparable level of uncertainty than what airlines are facing right now. I don’t have one.

Here is a quote from Delta Air Lines most recent securities filing, as reported by the Atlanta Business Chronicle, that speaks to the level of uncertainty:

“We are unable to predict how long these conditions will persist, what additional measures may be introduced by governments or private parties or what effect any such additional measures may have on air travel and our business. Furthermore, not only is the duration of the pandemic and future correlative combative measures at present unknown, the overall situation is extremely fluid, and it is impossible to predict the timing of future material changes in the situation. It therefore is impossible to predict whether any such unknown future developments will occur in the near, medium or long terms, and depending on the duration of the pandemic, such negative developments may occur over the entirety of the event.

With coronavirus data, guidance, restrictions, and projections in a seemingly constant state of flux, it is not clear how any airline (or airport) can effectively plan.

We are all working through the fog, but fortunately we pretty much have nowhere to go but up. We applaud Delta, American, United, Southwest and all of the carriers for retaining service here. We are currently down to 22 retained destinations from our early-March roster of 57 nonstops.

The region will continue to grow, the number of nonstops will increase again, and we will continue to support RDU and this market on its journey of prosperity through connections.

From lean to clean

In a future blog we will speak to measures that RDU and airlines are doing to keep terminals and planes clean — both surfaces and the air — and to keep passengers safe when traveling.

These and other steps are essential for allaying fears during the pandemic, and frankly for the preservation of the commercial air travel industry.

Let’s get moving,



Joe Milazzo II, PE
Executive Director
Regional Transportation Alliance


RTA is the voice of the regional business community on transportation

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