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Lynchburg airport seeks more flights, new northern route

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The Lynchburg Regional Airport is seeing a successful recovery this year from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and is working closely with American Airlines for a northern route in the future.

“There’s some challenges during the recovery but the recovery that we’re seeing is kind of stabilizing because how the market is with airplanes and airlines right now,” Airport Director Andrew LaGala said.

In September, the airport had 10,866 passengers, down from 16,000 passengers in 2019. But in September 2020, the airport only had 6,600 passengers.

Earlier this year, four flights per day went to Charlotte before gradually increasing to six in November, LaGala said the peak was seven flights pre-pandemic. All American Airlines flights from Lynchburg go directly to Charlotte, and all flights to Lynchburg come from there.

December will have five flights daily but beginning in January there will be six flights per day. LaGala hopes to bring back the seventh flight by the spring or the summer.

Pre-pandemic flights offered a mix of the larger dual cabins with first class and main cabins and had the CR7 and CR9 planes, which had 65 and 76 seats, respectively. Currently, the airport is only running main cabin flights with 50 seats. There is 93% passenger load at LYH with only two or three seats left on every flight.

LaGala said this is a good thing but there is a need for bigger planes now that people are flying more. The airlines also have begun offering lower fares.

“We’ve talked a lot with pricing and yield management with American [Airlines] and they’ve really realigned our pricing structure so it’s aligned with Charlottesville and Richmond, where we used to be a little more aligned with Roanoke,” he said.

This explains why passenger loads are so much higher now, because people are flying local more often.

“What we’re really working with American on is trying to get more seats, and to get more seats, you need more planes, but that runs into the staffing issues on their end,” he said. “After the pandemic, you’ve got to get all your crews back up and running and that takes some time.”

So it’s not that the airlines don’t have planes, LaGala said, it’s needing crew in cabins to fill the planes to get them in the air, and all airports are struggling with that right now.

Dennis Marcinik, general manager of the Virginian Hotel and a member of the Lynchburg Regional Airport Commission, said he’s seen an increase in airport-related customers starting this past summer.

Between Memorial Day to Labor Day, he saw an increase in leisure travel but mostly by car due to fewer flights. Since Labor Day there has been a more active business travel population from the health care, defense and insurance industries, which he said hasn’t been this strong since before the pandemic.

“So we’ve definitely seen an increase in our Monday night through Friday morning business model and the people who were doing business by Zoom are now traveling and actually flying,” he said.

He said the city is lucky to have LaGala — someone who came from outside the city — as the airport director.

“He is seeing the bigger picture and we’re now competing with Roanoke and Charlottesville and actually outperforming them in many respects. And that says a lot about the city and also says a lot about Andrew’s leadership,” he said.

Leisure travel was up this past year — about 80% of passengers were leisure travelers, LaGala said — but he’s expecting a 25% increase in business travel starting back up as well.

“The biggest push for the past six to eight months was outdoor activities and remote destinations so people are still trying to be safe all the way along the way while going on vacation,” he said.

He added revenues for the airport are doing much better, which is generating a fiscal year 2021 operating budget surplus of $567,057 on total operating revenues of $4.3 million.

“We’re in strong recovery right now,” he said. “The airport is almost operating at a breakeven point from the pandemic. I think the robust passenger recovery is what’s helped the airport on the revenue side.”

Industrywide, all airports are looking ahead at how travel will change.

“We still see the leisure travel staying strong,” LaGala said. “I think the dynamics of travel have changed and people travel differently now. Historically, when you booked tickets, you tried to book tickets three to six months out and the airlines loved that because they could schedule planes and figure out how they can move their network to have the right size airplane for the right area.”

Now, the new travel method is booking just a few weeks ahead.

“And that’s why you’re seeing prices that are not so bad so close in because the airlines are trying to help the consumer but yet, there’s nobody booking three months from now,” he said. “So that dynamic’s changed when it comes to the leisure travel and how they plan their vacations and travel.”

Overall, he thinks the market for leisure and business will be strong between 2022 and 2023.

“Right now, it’s mostly leisure and I think it’ll stay leisure all through 2022,” he said. “I think we’ll see business continue to increase which is why we should be getting more flights and bigger planes to accommodate those.”

The airport also is leveraging federal and state grant funding to undertake airfield infrastructure improvements amounting to $8.8 million for aircraft parking apron expansion and rehabilitation projects.

“While it’s been a challenging time for the airport overall, we’re in a much better position now both financially and operationally and have much to be encouraged by as we move into the year ahead,” he said.

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