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As Indianapolis International Airport Emerges From COVID-19, The Travelers Are Different

The type of travelers returning to the Indianapolis International Airport are different than they were in 2019. (Joey Mendolia, WTIU/WFIU News)

With COVID-19 vaccines widely available, more people are venturing out into the nation’s airports for the first time in over a year. 

But reminders of the last year remain. Announcements over loud speakers remind travelers to wear masks and remain six feet apart.

Jerry Huntsman was one of many passing through the Indianapolis International Airport this week. He and his family are traveling to Denver to celebrate their daughter’s graduation from IUPUI.

He flew last summer to Maine, but says he noticed one difference before even making it to security.

“There [are] a lot more people now than there were then,” he recalled.

He and his family are part of a growing number of summer travelers taking off. While traffic is increasing at the Indianapolis International Airport, it looks significantly different than it did in 2019.  

Leisure travelers, like the Huntsman family, are returning quickly, but that can’t be said for more lucrative business travelers. 

Large, legacy airlines have taken notice, offering routes to more leisure destinations.

READ MORE: Americans Set Another Pandemic-Era Record For Air Travel

"I think a lot of people have cabin fever, and they want to go out and they want to travel,” Indianapolis Airport Authority Executive Director Mario Rodriguez said. “They want to go to sun and fun destinations, which you're doing right now. And that's driving a lot of our travel. Leisure travel is driving most of our travel right now.”

Rodriguez says business travel makes up only a small portion of the airport’s total passengers, and those flyers are taking longer to return.

He believes up to 25% of pre-pandemic business travel could never return, but he says the airport is no longer in as dire a financial situation as it was this time last year. It’s just serving far fewer passengers. 

“We’re back to business as usual for a smaller footprint of an airport for lack of a better term," he said.

The airport was projecting 10 million passengers in 2020—the pandemic quickly changed that: “so, we’re probably operating an airport right now that runs about 5 million passengers a year.”  

While the number of passengers flying through U.S. airports is nowhere close to pre-pandemic levels, leisure travel is resuming faster.

Airlines serving those customers are likely primed for a quicker recovery, according to experts. That’s good news for Indy’s newest carrier.

“Here at Sun Country, we're an exclusively leisure airline,” Grant Whitney, the airline’s chief revenue officer said. 

The Minneapolis-based carrier began its first scheduled service to Indianapolis on Friday, and plans a route to Orlando later this year.  

These new routes are only possible due to the increase in leisure travelers.

“The first part of February, there was a noticeable pickup in demand and then we got sort of into the early part of April, there was another inflection point,” Whitney said. “The momentum continues to be there.”

While he and others admit traffic hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, demand is increasing by the day.

“We're definitely in a different place today than we were, you know, three months ago, six months ago, nine months ago, and a year, certainly,” Whitney said. “So, when it comes back, I think the momentum tells us that on the domestic leisure side, we will get there in the not-too-distant future.” 

That’s good news for travelers like the Huntsmans, who are ready to experience all of the destinations they missed last year.

Before boarding their flight to Denver, they reminisced about a planned trip to Los Angeles just before restrictions swept across the country.

Now, they’re just happy to be able to travel after being vaccinated.

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