Des Moines airport reports 2021 increase in traffic but remains short of pre-pandemic years

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Taxis line up and wait for their next fare at the Des Moines Airport on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, in Des Moines.
Taxis line up and wait for their next fare at the Des Moines Airport on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, in Des Moines.

Passenger traffic at the Des Moines International Airport in 2021 grew 67% from 2020 but still remains short of its record-setting pre-pandemic years.

New data released Wednesday shows 2,167,510 passengers moved through the airport last year. While it was an improvement over 2020, when airline travel dramatically slowed as COVID-19 spread worldwide, traffic remained 752,000 passengers short of 2019's record-setting 2.9 million.

With the exception of 2020, the airport had not handled fewer than 2.2 million passengers since 2012, when 2,080,162 people combined passed through its arrival and departure gates.

"Until the pandemic hit, the Des Moines International Airport celebrated 10 years of consecutive growth in passenger traffic," Kayla Kovarna, spokesperson for the airport, said in an email. "Now that passenger demand is returning for both leisure and business, we expect 2022 to be a strong year for air travel in Iowa."

More: Des Moines airport looks to speed up new terminal; asks for metro cities to pitch in, plus state, US aid

Most passengers in 2021 were leisure travelers, boosted in part by Allegiant airline's new base in Des Moines, which opened July 1, offering new nonstop trips to vacation-worthy destinations like Portland, Oregon, San Diego and Palm Springs, California. In the past, business travel has accounted for half of all passengers, and once it begins to rise, the airport may be poised for new records, airport director Kevin Foley has said.

"With the arrival of Allegiant and the additional flights and connections they're bringing, I don't look for leisure travel to back off," Foley previously told the Register. He added that when business travel bounces back, the airport — seeking funding for what airport officials say is a much-needed new terminal later in the decade — will be straining to keep up.

The International Air Transport Association has yet to put out year-end numbers, but announced Wednesday that the recovery in air travel continued in November prior to the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID.

Nationally, the Sunday after Thanksgiving appears to have been the busiest travel day of 2021, with 2.45 million passengers screened by the Transportation Security Administration, the most in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

Since then, the omicron outbreak has led to widespread flight cancellations as airlines deal with sick pilots and flight attendants. Winter weather also has complicated the situation.

United CEO Scott Kirby told employees in a memo Tuesday that the airline is reducing an unspecified number of flights in the near term to "make sure we have the staffing and resources to take care of our customers." He said 3,000 of United's U.S. employees have tested positive for coronavirus and are out of work. That's about 4.5% of the workforce at United, which was one of the first companies in the country to announce a vaccine mandate for workers.

JetBlue and Alaska have already announced proactive flight cuts due to an unprecedented number of sick calls.

USA TODAY contributed to this report.

Kim Norvell covers growth and development for the Register. Reach her at knorvell@dmreg.com or 515-284-8259. Follow her on Twitter @KimNorvellDMR.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Des Moines airport records traffic rebound from 2020's downturn

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