'Limping along': Air travel still struggling to get off the ground in Western Pa.

'Limping along': Air travel still struggling to get off the ground in Western Pa.

Air travel through Pittsburgh International Airport and Arnold Palmer Regional Airport is showing modest signs of improvement but remains largely crippled as the industry continues to grapple with allaying passengers’ fears.

Passenger volume at Pittsburgh International in June was up 113% over May, but the number of passengers — about 196,044 — was still down just over 78% compared to a year earlier, according to spokesman Bob Kerlik.

July totals are not available.

Passenger volume at the Findlay facility has been trending slowly upward since April, when travel was almost nonexistent. That month, just 32,415 travelers passed through the airport.

In May, about 92,500 passengers went through the airport — almost threefold the number in April — but the volume remained down nearly 90% compared to May 2019.

Through the first half of the year, passenger volume was down 56% over January through June of last year.

The scene is similar at Arnold Palmer airport in Unity.

“We’re limping along as far as air service is concerned,” said Gabe Monzo, executive director of the authority that operates the airport. “Our numbers are low. Weekends are kind of busy for Myrtle Beach, but overall numbers have been low for everything.”

There are two or three flights a day passing through the Westmoreland County facility, Monzo said. He noted there’s been a slight uptick in traffic on flights to Myrtle Beach, which fly out of Unity five times a week.

Spirit is the only airline flying out of Latrobe right now. Other nonstop flights include Orlando, Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale.

A CivicScience survey of more than 11,700 people showed most Americans still aren’t ready to fly. The number of people who said they planned to fly in the next six months dropped to 38% in June from 56% in February.

Traveling to southern covid-19 hot spots wasn’t a big concern for a number of the roughly 100 people who took a flight from the Arnold Palmer airport to Myrtle Beach on Friday morning.

“I think if everybody washes their hands, wears their mask and follows what we’re supposed to do, we’ll all be fine,” said Candie Rievel, who was heading from Richland Township, Cambria County, for a getaway with her husband at their condo.

“We just had the time off, things opened up a little bit and the fares were cheap,” she said. “We can social distance at the beach. We’ll just stay near each other and not congregate.”

Cody Beals of Murrysville accompanied his wife, Hannah, and their daughter, Phoenix, 2, as they departed for a connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale. The couple decided to take a chance on air travel for a visit with Cody’s grandfather.

“You have your concerns with the whole pandemic going on, but once you start looking into it, it’s not too bad,” he said. “There aren’t that many people traveling right now, and you have the (cabin) air that’s being filtered constantly.”

Concerned about an approaching tropical storm as well as covid-19, he said they would check into conditions before deciding to visit the beach. The family can always take a dip in his grandfather’s swimming pool.

“We plan on social distancing and not really being around people, so it won’t be like a normal getaway,” he said.

As the Beals family proceeded through the security checkpoint, Mike Zimmerman of Indiana arrived with eight family members and friends on an incoming flight from Myrtle Beach.

He said the beach they visited, just south of Myrtle Beach, was spacious and wasn’t crowded, though few people were wearing masks outdoors. “I wouldn’t call it a hot spot, from what I saw,” he said.

Zimmerman said he wouldn’t have any qualms about flying again during the pandemic. “Other than wearing the mask, it felt like a regular flight,” he said.

An airline industry trade association said this past week that it doesn’t expect global air travel to rebound to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

Kerlik said United Airlines scaled back flights for August only a week after it added them, announcing it would fly about 35% of the schedule it flew in August 2019. That announcement came days after United announced it would fly 40% of its 2019 schedule.

Many potential travelers expressed hesitancy regarding some airlines’ decision to start filling flights to capacity. In a separate CivicScience poll of nearly 3,500 people in late June and early July, 80% said now isn’t the time to fill every seat.

Southwest, Pittsburgh International’s top carrier, has taken the opposite tack. It is pledging to keep the middle seat open on flights through at least Oct. 31.

Airline president Thomas Nealon addressed the extension at a virtual meeting late last month that was recorded and published online. He said blocking off middle seats limits planes to about 65% capacity.

“As loads picked up back in late May and into June, we actually began to add in extra flights … to catch the demand we were spilling with the load factor restrictions,” he said.

The airline also updated its mask policy to make it more stringent, eliminating medical conditions as an exception.

“The reason we’re doing this,” Nealon said, “is we’re simply seeing too many exceptions to the policy and (that) has put our flight crews in a really tough spot and also made our customers pretty uncomfortable.”

Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for the airline, said the trend in the industry has been a “slow ramp-up” beginning in May through the end of the year. He pointed to the airline’s Southwest Promise, which outlines the carrier’s covid-19 precautions from check-in to deplane.

Most airlines and airports have implemented strict cleaning policies. Pittsburgh International began the second phase of its safety plan in late June. Masks are mandatory, social distancing markers are throughout the facility, and robots wielding ultraviolet light are helping to disinfect high-traffic areas.

The Transportation Security Administration has implemented similar guidelines for security checkpoints, including a face mask requirement, social distancing in lines and limiting the number of open security checkpoints because there are so few travelers.

Latrobe also has stepped up cleaning procedures, investing in atomized sprayer and ultraviolet light technology to clean the terminal after every flight, Monzo said.

“It’s a work-in-progress-type thing,” he said. “We’re complying with the requirements from the CDC. As far as the terminal building is concerned, we’re going a little bit over and above.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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