Charlottesville airport traffic increases, but travelers still miss flights to Chicago | Local News

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Despite decisions by two competing airlines to drop all four flights to and from Chicago, the local airport, known as CHO, has recently seen passenger numbers rebound.

“They’re about 75% of what they were before the pandemic,” said Melinda Crawford, executive director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport Authority.

Crawford, named Airport Manager of the Year last month by the Virginia Department of Aviation, will brief the Charlottesville City Council on Tuesday evening on CHO’s operations.

But downtown resident Mark Quigg knows what he wants: the return of those flights from Chicago.

“I’m grieving,” said Quigg, a professor of neurology at the University of Virginia. Quigg said he often takes day trips to serve with the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Epilepsy Society, both located in the Windy City.

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“It was incredibly convenient to drive the 20 minutes or whatever to the airport, do your business in Chicago, and drive home, so you sleep in your own bed that night,” said Quigg.

Quigg would also fly from CHO in Chicago to West Coast destinations. However, the two round trips to Chicago offered by American Airlines were axed in November 2020, when passenger traffic was only a fraction of its earlier highs. And in June of this year, CHO lost its two remaining flights to Chicago when United Airlines pulled out of that market.

Quigg is not sympathetic to the carriers, which received $54 billion in federal bailout funds at the height of the pandemic.

“Didn’t we bail out the airlines to keep the service going?” Quigg asked. “The answer is yes, but not for Charlottesville.”

In addition to losing Chicago, CHO lost service to Philadelphia in November 2021 when American Airlines canceled both daily arrivals and departures. Crawford notes in his status report that there are typically between 15 and 18 daily flights remaining to Charlotte, Dulles, Atlanta and LaGuardia from New York to provide a myriad of connections.

“From these four airports,” Crawford said, “you can get anywhere in the world.”

Quigg isn’t convinced it makes sense to try to connect to Charlottesville when hundreds of direct flights are available from Richmond and Washington, DC airports. He will soon fly to Sweden, but he will not start at CHO. He says he will make the 100 mile trip to Dulles even though CHO took a third daily connection to Dulles after losing Chicago and Philadelphia.

“I’m just not going to use Charlottesville,” Quigg said. “The two-hour drive north is cheaper and leaves you less likely to be stranded.”

For example, on September 3, a round-trip ticket from CHO to San Francisco on United via Dulles costs $400, booking a month. A nonstop round-trip flight from Dulles to San Francisco on United costs $209, when booked a month in advance.

When Crawford addresses City Council on Tuesday evening, she may note that on a peak day in June 2022, 1,113 people flew in or out of CHO, according to the report. Although this is a massive recovery from the darkest pandemic days of April 2020, when CHO only saw 20 passengers per day, it is below levels seen three years ago. On the peak day of June 2019, 1,379 passengers flew to or from CHO. But that was with 25 flights. Still, she remains optimistic about the future – if her team can attract more steals.

“Every time they put a new service in this airport,” she said, “the seats sold out.”

The case in point, deputy director Jason Burch said, was the Chicago service, which started with about $700,000 in grants that CHO secured in 2010 through a Department of Transportation program to strengthen service at small airports. While Burch said Chicago flights have become self-sustaining, CHO remains at the mercy of airlines, his boss explained.

“Airlines,” Crawford said, “are reviewing their operations all the time, so they’re going to put their plane — their most valuable asset — where it can make the most money.”

Most passengers and profits, she said, come from a post-pandemic increase in flights to vacation destinations, such as Florida, Colorado, Montana and Hawaii. Many leisure venues are now exceeding their pre-pandemic traffic.

“It’s not that CHO did anything wrong or isn’t profitable for the airlines,” Crawford said. “It’s just that right now the leisure market is driving things.”

In other words, an airline will make more money by bringing its jets closer to the most popular recreational airports. Prior to the pandemic, CHO traffic grew at an annual rate of about 4%, Crawford said.

“We bounce back,” she says. “We’re just not bouncing back as fast as the leisure markets.”

Still, Crawford sees tourism in Central Virginia increasing and promotes Charlottesville to airlines in hopes of getting more flights.

“We keep the CHO name in front of them and remind them what a great partner CHO is for their service,” Crawford said.

Some things CHO was able to accomplish during its quieter days are capital upgrades that Crawford hopes will make the airport more attractive to airlines. In her report, Crawford said she would mention:

• A $9.7 million apron extension (where planes park) completed in early 2021;

• A $2.6 million taxiway relocation (where the planes travel) completed later in 2021;

• A $4 million exterior elevator and walkway construction project is expected to be completed in November; and

• A $2.5 million replacement of the escalators leading to the upper door is expected to be completed later this month.

There is still a $4.4 million project to install LED lighting throughout the airport.

While these elements may make CHO more attractive to airlines, frequent flyer Quigg said there was only one thing that would make CHO attractive to him:

“Bring back flights from Chicago.”

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