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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

Passenger numbers have rebounded at Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport after decreases during the pandemic

Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport terminal
Mr. Satterly
The terminal at Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport near Gillette.

The number of passengers flying through Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport near Gillette continues to increase after experiencing significant drops during the pandemic.

Airport Executive Director Todd Chatfield said that the airport experienced what many airports went through globally.

"The decline was for sure the COVID," he said. "But I think we kind of opened up a little quicker in this area. So, we were still kind of slower than we were hoping, but it seems like it’s coming back fairly well now."

According to the airport's official passenger statistics, April 2020 saw only 224 people arriving and departing on flights. The April 2019 figure was 2,806. By October 2021, the situation had changed significantly as the numbers had risen to 4,896 compared to 2,828 for the same time in 2020.

The decline in air travel through much of the pandemic will likely take years to make up for if numbers ever fully recover to pre-pandemic levels. Chatfield said this holds true for the Gillette airport.

"2019 was a really good year for us, we had one of the better years we've had," he said. "2020 was a disaster. 2021, we are looking at a nice rebound. It was a little slow at first, but our load factors are about 85 percent right now."

Chatfield said that as Covid restrictions are lifted and more businesses opt to hold in-person meetings and conferences, more people are electing to fly.

"Wyoming kind of opened up before other places in the nation did," he said. "But now, a lot of places are having conferences and things like that again and that's why I think our numbers are coming up."

Though there is reason to believe that numbers will continue to rise, Chatfield said that small airports are usually more prone to the changes in the aviation industry than larger ones. For Northeast Wyoming Regional, this means issues with the airlines themselves can disrupt flight schedules and lead to delays or cancellation. He said that has been the case during the pandemic as several regularly scheduled flights have had to be canceled due to airline staffing issues.

For small airports, canceled flights can have a big impact on their bottom line.

"Every time a plane doesn't come in, we lose revenue on fuel sales, landing fees, from the concessions from our restaurant and everything," Chatfield said. "It's just when we lose a flight that has a big effect on our airport's revenue."

Chatfield said that while approximately 10 flights have had to be canceled during the pandemic thus far, there is a possibility of adding an additional daily flight next year to the two existing ones. He said there were three daily flights this summer, which was possible due to the airport being part of a capacity purchasing agreement.

These agreements allow for increased air service to member airports with the state and/or county kicking in funding to the airline to ensure that it's economical to them if the service isn’t profitable to them otherwise. Many airports in the state participate in capacity purchasing agreements.

While things in the aviation industry can change very quickly, Chatfield is optimistic about what 2022 may hold. However, he admitted there are many factors that small airports have no control over.

"We'll just have to see how the national and international picture is," he said. "The big airline and the big airports adjust and handle things, then we kind of know what's going to happen here."

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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