With passengers back, local airports prep for holiday travel

Northern Virginia’s two passenger airports continue to edge ever closer to pre-pandemic traveler counts, with the upcoming holiday season potentially getting them there – while also bringing some challenges.

The combined 4.2 million in passengers traveling through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport in August represented 94 percent of the count in August 2019, the last summer before COVID struck.

In an Oct. 19 report to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board of directors, Chryssa Westerlund – the airports authority’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer – noted that Reagan National now is consistently running above pre-pandemic passenger totals (103 percent of August 2019), while international travel “continues to come back strong” at Washington Dulles.

International service at Dulles in August stood at 96 percent of the same month in 2019, with dominant United Airlines recording 99 percent of its pre-pandemic international passenger counts. (Most of Dulles’s international-flight service heads east or south, rather than to Asia, where some countries continue to vigorously enforce restrictive COVID-caused entry requirements.)

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With summertime now in the rear-view mirror, the airports authority is pivoting toward the holiday season, where pent-up demand among the traveling public could – potentially – lead to huge numbers.

“We’re on a good trajectory,” said Jack Potter, president/CEO of the authority, noting that the budget for airport operations has seen revenue 46 percent higher than a year before and 13 percent above what had been budgeted. Potter called that a “trend in the right direction.”

But there’s a trifecta of headwinds to be concerned about: inflation, international instability and the ever-mutating COVID.

“We’re still keeping a watchful eye” on all three, Potter said.

(One sign that normalcy might be creeping back at the authority: The Oct. 19 board meeting was held with board members and senior staff in person after being held online, with rare exceptions, since the start of the pandemic. But masks on most of the participants suggest there’s a difference between “normalcy” and completely back to normal.)

The oh-so-close opening of the expanded Silver Line, which will include a station adjacent to Dulles if not actually in it, should prove helpful for both travelers and the airports authority alike.

In remarks to board members, Potter acknowledged that parking at both airports was likely to be tight for the holidays, noting that travelers can go online in advance and reserve a parking spot for their travel days.

“We strongly recommend [that] for everyone with holiday-travel plans,” he said.

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