A reluctance to travel amid the coronavirus pandemic will cut as much as half of the passenger traffic at the state's largest airport over the next two months, its top official said Tuesday.
Parking revenue, considered an accurate gauge of passenger traffic, has already fallen 21% in March compared with the same time in 2019 at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field, said Bryan Malinowski, the airport's executive director. Concession revenue has reportedly declined even more -- 25%, he said.
"At the moment, I don't have any permanent [flight] cancellations," Malinowski told members of the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission at their monthly meeting Tuesday. "But as this spools up, we'll see numbers that easily reach into 40[percent] or 50 percent level over the next couple of months."
The airport saw about 2.1 million passengers in 2019.
Malinowski noted that leisure travel accounts for up to 70% of passenger traffic at Clinton National. Leisure travel is discretionary, which is why the airport can expect to see a dramatic drop, he said.
"The first thing people are doing is staying home and not traveling at all," Malinowski said. "We're seeing a lot of people just outright canceling their flights."
Airlines haven't dropped any routes at Clinton National, but American Airlines is dropping two or three of its morning flights to Dallas and restoring them in the afternoon, Malinowski said. Other airlines are replacing mainline aircraft such as a Boeing 737 or an Airbus model with smaller regional jets.
"You're probably going to continue to see that as the passenger traffic is lighter and in some cases half the normal traffic," he said. "You don't need as many seats flying from here to the destination so the airlines are appropriately gauging the aircraft to meet that demand.
"At the moment, I don't have any permanent cancellations, but they're coming."
Alex English, the spokeswoman at Northwest Arkansas National Airport at Highfill, said that beyond a daily flight between Northwest National and San Francisco, the airlines serving the state's second-largest airport have cut no routes.
"This could obviously change in the coming weeks -- only time will tell," English said in an email.
Malinowski's pessimistic outlook came on the heels of a robust February for Clinton National.
Passenger traffic was up 3.11% in the first two months of the year. The airport saw 309,597 passengers in January and February, up 300,347 in the same two months of 2019, according to the latest data.
The airport's concession revenue over the same period also was strong. Concession revenue, which includes parking, and restaurants and retail, as well as other categories, totaled nearly $2.8 million in January and February, a 6% jump compared with the same period last year.
Parking, which is the airport's single largest category of non-airline revenue, accounted for $1,478,887 of the concession revenue in the first two months of 2020, up slightly from the $1,432,766 the airport collected in the same months last year.
Revenue from restaurants and retail, was down slightly to $153,025, or about $6,500 less than the same period a year ago.
The airport could take other financial hits over the next few months. Gus Vratsinas, the commission chairman, said he has seen a proposal to use passenger facility charges to help offset airline losses.
The airlines, which are seeking $50 billion from the federal government, have seen international travel evaporate as a result of Trump administration travel bans in Asia and Europe seeking to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
"The global pandemic to all airport flying schedules have our [airline] network planning officers working in pure survival mode right now," said Rachel Bader, air service development manager for Clinton National.
Passenger facility charges are a federally mandated fee of $4.50 that the airport collects on each boarding passenger. That money is used to pay for projects approved by the Federal Aviation Administration that enhance the safety, security or capacity of the airport as well as reduce noise or increase airline competition.
The airport collected more than $4.3 million in passenger facility charges last year.
"Politically, something is going to happen, and not everyone is going to like it," Vratsinas said.
Commission member Bill Walker asked, considering the dour outlook, if layoffs among the airport's 155 employees would be warranted.
Malinowski all but ruled out layoffs, saying the airport's financials are healthy and expressing optimism that the downturn in traffic would be temporary.
"Our financials are very strong and our financial situation is such we could operate the airport for a couple of years without having to consider that," he said.
"Is that a wise thing to do?" Walker asked.
"If this becomes a long-term issue, then we would sit down and make those decisions," Malinowski said. "I view this as a two- to three-month issue and passenger traffic will start to return.
"We've thought about that, but I'd be far more inclined to cut things before we cut people."