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How Washington’s airports expect to bounce back from the pandemic

Chryssa Westerlund, an executive at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, surveys the coming months

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Two years ago, air travel all but came to a standstill as governors imposed strict rules designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. In the months that followed, airlines and airports survived with tens of billions of dollars in aid from the federal government.

In the months since, the recovery in air travel has been bumpy, with people’s desires to see distant family or to get away from home clashing with new waves of the virus. But heading into this summer’s vacation season, travel seems to be on a steady upswing.

The Washington Post spoke with Chryssa Westerlund, executive vice president and chief revenue officer of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority — which operates Dulles International and Reagan National airports — about navigating the pandemic and expectations for travel the rest of the year.

Q: It felt like in March 2020, the system changed and flights stopped and passengers stopped coming. Was that your experience, that this change was incredibly swift and dramatic?

A: We had been monitoring the situation for a couple of months leading up to March. We had seen some of the flights being suspended to China. But yes, in terms of March, I think we saw a pretty dramatic drop-off. There was a period of repatriation where we saw a surge of folks that had not intended to travel, so Dulles did see a lot of that traffic for a couple of weeks immediately after the impact. But overall, yes, it was an incredibly significant drop, probably faster than we have seen, certainly in my career.

Q: What were some of the challenges you were faced with immediately?

A: I think our immediate concern was the same as the rest of the country: How do we all take care of our customers, our passengers and our employees? Our focus really turned immediately to health and safety, and so, very quickly, we increased our cleaning procedures. We moved our employees into close-in parking so they wouldn’t be on a bus. We dropped all of our close-in parking rates so our passengers could pay economy prices for walkable spaces and didn’t have to take the bus. And then really, just communicating and, of course, putting the mask mandate in as quickly as we could.

Q: When did you start to feel like the most acute phase of the crisis had passed for your airports? And then, what was the process of trying to adjust to some kind of new normal?

A: Last summer, it became apparent that people were getting more comfortable with flying again, that we were seeing the leisure traveler really come back in force last summer, and that’s only continued to increase. That really gave us a line of sight that, at least mentally, people were in a place where they were more comfortable with the process of traveling on an airplane. Then really, it became more about what was open within the destinations that they wanted to go to and how safe they felt when they arrived.

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Q: What’s the situation with international travel? Is that still down much more than domestic?

A: It continues to be down more than domestic. We did see a nice surge when it was first reopened, and it was really a fantastic experience to see some of these families that have been separated for almost two years have an opportunity to see each other. In some cases we saw grandparents who had never met their grandchild. So that was a really great experience to see that opened back up.

There has been, still, a large number of restrictions in place with travel that added to the cost, that added to the concern when it came to international travel. Those are slowly coming away and I think we are seeing an uptick in international travel. Our airlines are really placing their bets on international travel coming back this summer very strong. We have the same amount, if not more, international capacity scheduled for this summer at Dulles International as we had in the pre-pandemic. So as of right now, they’re still optimistic. You know, it’s a very uncertain time frame with the fuel costs, with the international crisis being driven by Ukraine.

Q: For domestic flights, are you expecting to see this summer be comparable to 2019 or are you expecting it might still be somewhat lower? Or might there be some pent-up demand?

A: Coming into this year and looking at where we’re at now, we are expecting a strong summer again. Leisure travel is very strong, if not, in some cases, stronger than it was before 2019. The fact that companies have not pulled all of their employees back into the offices has allowed people to work from other destinations. That has increased what we call the “bleisure” travel, a combination of business and leisure, where they’re functioning as employees from destinations that might be farther away. True business travel isn’t going to come back, though, I think, until we see the federal government and agencies move back into their offices. There’s really no one for these contractors to meet with when everybody’s working from home. So I think that’s going to be the tipping point as to when we see travel look a lot like the pre-pandemic levels.

Q: For people who haven’t traveled through an airport in the last couple of years, how is their experience going to be different at National or Dulles?

A: Certainly at Reagan National with the completion of the new security checkpoints, the addition of the new concourse, I think folks are going to be really happy with their experience. But it’s a different flow of passengers, so they need to give themselves a little bit more time because it’s not exactly what they experienced on a pre-pandemic basis. I love to highlight the fact that we have been monitoring the customer feedback on those changes, and we’re seeing a 96-percent positive reaction to the new checkpoint. So in that way, I would say everything that’s happening at Reagan National, they’re going to be very happy and pleasantly surprised with the positive impact on the journey. The other aspect of it was, we almost doubled the amount of post-security concession opportunities at Reagan National by moving those checkpoints.

But of course, most importantly, they need to wear their masks. The mask mandate is still in place. And also think very strongly about making a parking reservation. With so much leisure travel, we are seeing our parking garages already filling on weekends so far in 2022, and that is likely to continue to be a trend. So if folks want to have the peace of mind and the guarantee that they have a space, they should definitely make a reservation.

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Q: On the concession side, how healthy is that? Have you seen people go out of business? Have you seen new concessions come in?

A: The pandemic has been a really scary time for our concessionaires. At one point, probably 85 percent of them had closed their doors and were sitting on the sidelines trying to figure out what to do and how to keep their businesses viable. The airports authority was very thankful for the fact that the federal government stepped in and provided a significant amount of financial support to the airports, because that allowed us to turn around and be very generous with our partners. So we’re happy to say that virtually all of our concessions partners are still viable businesses. Close to 95 percent, if not more, are now open again and operating.

Q: Do you feel like there’s going to come a point by the fall where you’ll be able to look back and say, “We’re really back in the swing of things here”?

A: We are seeing our customer satisfaction numbers are doing well. And in some ways, you know, the lower passenger count helped that, because it’s not as crowded. They’re finding a nice seat, and they’re able to get through their concession lines very quickly. So in that sense, I think our customers are actually having a better experience and really appreciating everything that’s happening in the airports.

I like to be optimistic and think by the end of this year, we will be approaching pre-pandemic levels of travel in certain months. Our forecast for the whole year is really to be back to about 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, but that starts a little slower in the start of the year and kind of works its way all the way back to the top at the end of the year.

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