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Quad-City International Airport surviving difficult year
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Quad-City International Airport surviving difficult year

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At first appearance, the numbers for the Quad City International Airport look devastating.

They had 721,999 passengers for 2019. For 2020, they had 306,260.

But alas, everything is truly relative — even these numbers, which are down 58% from the previous year.

“All things considered, we did (keep up with the national average),” Ashleigh Johnston, the airport’s public relations and marketing manager, said. “A lot of times we were outpacing national recovery. And a lot of it has to do with (big-city) airports factoring in a complete shutdown of international flights, and with us just being domestic, that helped. I think, all things considered, we are happy with the trajectory that we are on.”

That trajectory finds the airport stable but with a good chance for growth, besides coming off a solid December of 24,000 passengers, its second-biggest month of the year despite losing some time to snow and ice.

“We’ve been relatively stable,” Johnston said. “We are hoping to have a little bit of a bump with the advent of the Denver route (sometime around Feb. 11). That surely will add some passengers.”

Johnston also believes as more people get vaccinated, air travel numbers will increase and lead to a rebound for the local airport.

“It will take several years for the industry to recover fully,” she said. “All we can really focus on is making ’21 look better than ’20. We are hopeful that it will.”

Nothing proves stability like keeping the entire airport workforce. And with the aid of the CARES Act money, the Quad-City International Airport was able to keep its entire crew of just under 100 employees, Johnston said.

“That was one of Ben’s (executive director Ben Leischner of the Quad-City International Airport) primary focuses when the pandemic started was to make sure our workforce did not have to worry about their jobs.”

CARES Act funding in Round 1 brought the airport about $8 million. And grants helped, too, Johnston said. And more is expected in the next round.

“Certainly, we will put that back into our properties, as we did the first time,” she said. “That really helped fulfill a lot of critical gaps. Getting that funding was extremely important for us, especially for maintaining that workforce.”

The funding also helped the airport take precautions in terms of the pandemic, from buying Plexiglas to supplying hand sanitizer and even supplying free face coverings in June. The airport was in good shape by mid-March after COVID-19 began to fully engulf the country.

Interestingly, freight was barely down for the year, only 5%.

One reason for that, Johnston said, is John Deere and other companies in this area are considered essential, and their workers kept working.

But so is online shopping.

“It just goes to show the importance of what online orders have done, of taking more things online. A lot of the businesses we work with that make it free,” she said. “We did not see the decline because it became more important than ever to be shipping goods across the U.S.”

December shipping was up 21% over December 2019.

Overall, 2020 wasn’t a good year for the airport, but it is stable and some might say, ready for takeoff — in terms of a rebound.

“I think that’s fair,” Johnston said. “We will have to take a different look when we are starting a pathway to recovery.”

With people working at home and some colleges already cancelling spring break, the near future will be different compared with the past, she said.

“It will be an interesting year to see how each month plays out and what that looks like in terms of recovery," Johnston said. "But we are feeling good heading into it."

One person happy to learn that the airport is doing OK is Paul Rumler, president and CEO of the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce.

"Air service has been hit hard, and our airport does a really good job of trying to provide some high-quality service and work with the airlines to maintain that over the last 12 months," Rumler said. "Over the past two months, it's been good to see that things have stabilized. I know they have been working hard to reach out to the airlines and local users.

"It's reassuring because of the worth of the airport to our communities," he added. "Imagine the Quad-Cities  region without an airport; that will tell you how important it is."

Access is everything to newcomers, or for that matter, companies considering bringing their businesses here. "As a resident thinks about living in a place and a city, they think about 'well, where do I have access to? Where can I get to if I live there?' "

Businesses are concerned about the ease of which clients can get to an area, too, he noted. 

"Having a world-class airport like the Quad-City International Airport is extremely important to our community's fabric, our quality of life, our quality of place, but also it puts us on the map.

"People can get to the Quad-Cities in a quick and efficient manner. We look at this as a really critical asset of a community, specifically here in the Quad-Cities."

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