travelers check-in for their flight with American Airlines at the Evansville Regional Airport on Wednesday morning. MaCabe Brown staff photo
travelers check-in for their flight with American Airlines at the Evansville Regional Airport on Wednesday morning. MaCabe Brown staff photo
Evansville Regional Airport and similar facilities have always had a simple message surrounding commercial flights they offer: use them, or risk losing them.

As recently as 2019, the loss of any EVV flights seemed highly unlikely. Then, the airport saw its highest passenger load in two decades, with nearly 1 million combined arrivals and departures. Those flyers enjoyed well-received renovations to EVV’s terminal, which had been untouched since it was built in 1988.

COVID’s arrival in spring 2020 ground all of that momentum to a halt. Traffic through the refurbished terminal plummeted. A mild recovery came last year, with up to three-fourths of pre-pandemic passenger loads returning. But as airport manager Nate Hahn told the Rotary Club recently: “We still have a long way to go to get back to where we were.”

Airport officials say vacation travel has returned, for the most part, even as federal regulations still require masks on flights.

Allegiant Air, the economy carrier that’s grown across the country, maintains its nondaily connections between EVV and Orlando and Destin, Florida. EVV officials said Allegiant is pleased with the performance of those flights, and another destination could be added in the future, with Florida’s west coast a good candidate.

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But EVV and other airports still face COVID-related headwinds as they try to not only gain new flights but keep ones they have.

United Airlines has ended its connection between Evansville and Chicago, saying those flights and a list of others at small airports were no longer profitable enough. United flights to and from Chicago comprised 8% of EVV’s total passenger load.

EVV’s connection with Detroit via American Airlines is on hiatus, but it’s expected to return in March.

'It's changed significantly'

Business travel is critical to the local airport’s future success, officials said. That’s why EVV’s current marketing campaign, titled Fly EVV First, features CEOs of the bistate region’s biggest employers. Those executives praise the convenience of EVV, as well as the value of meeting face-to-face rather than on a screen.

“There’s been many more Zoom meetings,” Risch said. “We have had customers come see us, and I’ve made some day trips, but it’s pretty well constrained. I would expect it to remain so during the winter season.”

Evansville-based Berry Global, a Fortune 500 company with about 300 facilities worldwide, also is flying far less.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority for our company, and we know it’s the same for our customers and suppliers,” said Curt Begle, president of Berry’s health hygiene and specialties division. “It’s changed significantly. We’re selective in (air) traffic that is allowed. Regardless of your vaccination status, it’s still a challenge to keep people from getting ill.”

Toyota Indiana in Gibson County shut down practically all air travel early in the pandemic. It has since opened back up a bit, but the global automobile maker is still limiting trips to those deemed essential.

Toyota hopes this isn't a new normal. Tim Hollander, vice president of manufacturing, said some business can be done virtually, but forging in-person relationships with vendors and colleagues around North America and the world are part of “the Toyota way.”

Toward that end, Hollander said he knows from experience how valuable EVV is. He said after spending 20 hours in the air returning from Japan, for instance, it helps to not have to drive at least two more hours to get home.

High usage of the local airport enables it to add more amenities and options for travelers, said Hollander. “When we fly EVV, everybody wins.”

Begle and Risch fully agreed with that sentiment. But, like Hollander, they said it’s complicated to predict when, or if, a pre-COVID business environment might return for companies around the world.

Begle said the different rules that countries have about COVID muddy the waters even more. Berry Global has factories in Asia, but Begle has not visited since 2019.

“To get back to the level companies were once traveling, I would say that’s unlikely, but that would be reading the crystal ball on into the future,” said Begle, stressing that he prefers face-to-face interaction instead of webcams. “I think there will be an increase over what it is now.”

'It always recovers'

EVV officials said their recent outreach to local businesses underscore how important that segment is to the airport's future viability.

They said EVV offers more than just a shorter car ride after a flight. Over the last seven years, they said, the local airport's fares have fallen 17%.

“We’ve worked hard to change the conversation that EVV was not the affordable option," said Leslie Fella, director of marketing and air service.

Although United's connection to Chicago is gone, American continues its daily connections between Evansville and the Windy City. EVV officials said they've had talks with American about expanding Chicago service, with either additional flights or larger aircraft.

Additional first-class options also is a conversation topic, according to EVV. Until Detroit's anticipated return, EVV's daily connections are with Delta and American hubs in Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago and Dallas.

Fella said area businesses are responding positivity to EVV's entreaties. 

She said EVV surveyed more than 100 local companies about how they expect the future to go, "and a lot of them told us they would be back to their travel levels in 2019 and perhaps even exceed that.”

Hahn, the airport's manager, said pilot retirements, aircraft and crew availability and fuel costs all impact decisions airlines make regarding service. But greater usage of existing service always improves the chance it will continue.

COVID is a significant hurdle for the airline industry, Hahn said, but he noted that it has overcome others throughout history — 9/11 and the Great Recession, most recently.

"Aviation has only grown," Hahn said. "If you look at the 1950s, 1960s to the present, there are occasional dips, but the overall trend line only goes up. There will be some loss. But ultimately it will be made back up. It always recovers.”

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