Passenger traffic is on pace to be down more than 90% in April at Baton Rouge Metro Airport, with air travel coming to a virtual halt because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cargo landings also are down significantly, and airport revenue is being affected, though an $8.4 million federal grant is expected to buoy the airport's budget. 

While there are normally 22 roundtrip passenger flights a day out of the airport heading to hubs such as Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina, Dallas and Houston, the airlines are now making only one trip a day to those markets, said Jim Caldwell, a spokesman for Baton Rouge Metro.

“While the frequency is down dramatically, we still have service to each hub airport daily that provide those that need to fly with the opportunity to connect to destinations throughout the networks of American, Delta and United,” he said.

In March, 16,210 passengers took flights out of Baton Rouge Metro, a 54% drop from the year before. Deplanements were slightly better, having fallen to 16,757, a 52% decrease. While the specter of the pandemic hung over the U.S. for much of the early part of the month, it wasn’t until March 11 that widespread event cancellations started happening. And non-essential business activity was shut down about a week later.

“We anticipate significantly lower passenger volume this month,” Caldwell said. “This is in line with what is happening at airports across the country.”

Traffic at U.S. airports hit new lows daily, and has fallen below 100,000 for likely the first time since the jet age began. The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 90,510 people April 12, a mere 3.7% of the nearly 2.5 million people who passed through checkpoints on the corresponding Sunday a year ago.

Commercial flight landings, which also include cargo being transported, have dropped even further than passenger activity at Baton Rouge Metro Airport. While there were about 700 flight landings in March 2019, that number had dropped to about 90 this year. That’s led to a similar drop in landing fee revenue.

The decline in activity is cutting into the Baton Rouge Metro Airport budget in a number of ways. It’s no longer getting as much in passenger fees, parking fees, vehicle rental charges, fuel taxes or fees from Uber and Lyft passengers picked up at the airport. Caldwell said parking fees were down nearly half, or $172,160, while Uber and Lyft fees were also about half as much.

Despite all of the cutbacks in business, the airports’ revenue hasn’t plunged that dramatically. Caldwell said airport revenue was down a little over $200,000 in March from the year before. 

About half of the airports' nearly $19 million budget comes from non-airline generated sources through its Aviation Business Park. Tenants include the Express Jet Regional Jet Maintenance Center; a United Coca-Cola Bottlers plant; American Auto Auction; Louisiana Department of Health Office of Emergency Preparedness; Loomis; Dow; Helix Aviation Academy; All Star Chevrolet-North; Georgia-Pacific; and the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff headquarters.

The business park has helped cushion the blow somewhat. The airport operates as an enterprise fund and doesn't draw any tax dollars from the city-parish.

One bit of good financial news was an $8.4 million grant awarded last week from the U.S. Department of Transportation aimed at helping airports cope with the massive decline in business. The money will help lessen the financial blow.

The grant, coupled with rainy day revenue the airport already has on hand, will allow the facility to cover operating expenses “for the foreseeable future without interruption," Caldwell said. None of the 68 employees who work for the airport have been furloughed.


Email Timothy Boone at tboone@theadvocate.com.