Eau Claire’s airport saw its trend for airline passenger numbers fly slightly higher last year than the latest available nationwide figures.
Chippewa Valley Regional Airport saw a 5.2 percent increase in those using commercial and casino charter flights while the most recent national statistics showed passenger numbers were up 4.5 percent through November.
CVRA manager Charity Zich said airline travel at the airport, which has flights through United Express to Chicago O’Hare International Airport, has been on the rise.
“It has been growing for the last several years,” she said.
That’s not always been the case, she said, as the local airport and others see numbers decline when the economy is in trouble and people have less money to spend on discretionary expenses including travel.
Last year 47,262 people boarded or got off a scheduled flight at the Eau Claire airport — an increase of 2,342 on 2017’s numbers.
While that’s mostly United Express passengers, casino charter flights to Nevada cities of Laughlin and Wendover contributed about 5,000 to last year’s passenger total, Zich said.
A contributing factor to last year’s increase is United Express bringing back a midday Saturday flight in February, which had been absent from the schedule for about two years.
The local airport also has also been marketing itself by asking travelers to consider the whole cost of traveling through the nearest major airport versus booking a flight in Eau Claire.
“We’ve really been focusing on the message that travelers should consider the true cost of their travel and not just the cost on their airfare,” Zich said.
An Eau Claire resident traveling to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport would spend about $150 more on gasoline and parking for a four-day trip than they would flying from CVRA, Zich said.
Estimates for December air travel throughout the U.S. were scheduled for release on Friday — giving a complete picture of 2018 — but will be delayed due to the federal government shutdown, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics website.
For the first 11 months of 2018, passenger numbers were up 4.5 percent on U.S. airlines compared with the same time in 2017, according to the most recent available federal statistics and estimates. There were 812.6 million passengers that flew on airlines through last November while there were 777.4 million at the same time in 2017.
Passengers flying on domestic flights account for the vast majority — 87.5 percent — of those travelers. And passenger counts on domestic flights increased 4.8 percent while international travel grew 2.4 percent.
The federal government shutdown, which began Dec. 22, so far has not resulted in any noticeable changes at the local airport.
“We are thankful that our FAA and TSA local employees continue to come to work,” Zich said. “We are hopeful there is some resolution to the shutdown before it has a major impact on them.”
If the shutdown continues, it could delay the approval process for construction planned later this year at the airport.
The airport is planning to rehabilitate its two runways this summer and will be submitting projects to the FAA for review in the next month or so, Zich said.
While airline travel figures are one measure of how many people use the airport that gets some funding from Eau Claire and Chippewa counties, it only accounts for a fraction of aircraft that use CVRA.
Overall air traffic — including commercial, private, corporate, charter and other aircraft — grew by 9 percent last year when measured by takeoffs and landings. There were just under 22,000 takeoffs and landings last year recorded during the air traffic control tower’s hours of 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Zich said. In 2017, the figure was 20,155.
United Express airline accounted for 1,500 and 1,200, respectively in 2018 and 2017.
The airport also hosted an air show last year and is scheduled to welcome another in 2020, which will attract thousands of spectators but won’t have much of an impact on CVRA’s flight statistics.
The many aircraft that takeoff and land during air shows are not included in airport’s count. Their initial arrivals and departures around the show are counted, but Zich noted they didn’t have a major impact when looking at last June’s figures, which were just 77 higher than June 2017.
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