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Airports explore new ways to forecast travel amid pandemic

Leoneda Inge Jan 11, 2021
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Kenneth Strickland, director of air service development at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. RDU is working with a nearby analytics firm to look at other data, like hotel bookings and rental car reservations, that could be helpful for predicting travel. Leoneda Inge
COVID-19

Airports explore new ways to forecast travel amid pandemic

Leoneda Inge Jan 11, 2021
Heard on:
Kenneth Strickland, director of air service development at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. RDU is working with a nearby analytics firm to look at other data, like hotel bookings and rental car reservations, that could be helpful for predicting travel. Leoneda Inge
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As a passenger heading to Las Vegas from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Christopher Burwell Sr. was a rarity at the airport late last year. Burwell said despite travel warnings due to COVID-19, he had to get away.

“Vacation!” Burwell said. “Being considered an essential worker, I had an opportunity to actually relax and get some time off to myself.”

With air traffic down because of the pandemic, airport officials have found it hard to plan and forecast who’s flying when. Travel forecasting tries to predict how many passengers will be going through an airport’s gates, and it’s important for the airline industry.

“So, it’s critically important that we get this right,” said Kenneth Strickland, the director of air service development at Raleigh-Durham. “We were kind of in a situation where we did not know where to turn.”

In 2019, the airport reported that a record 14.2 million travelers flew through RDU. Airport officials expected that 2020 was shaping up to be even bigger. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

RDU announced last year that, due to the pandemic, it had to revise its budget and cut spending by nearly 45%. The airport also deferred $96 million in capital projects.

Strickland said that with the pandemic, all of the old methods of forecasting passenger traffic — airline seat capacity and economic indicators like gross domestic product — weren’t working.

“People that were projecting, ‘hey this is going to be a one- to two-month event and then we’re back to normal,’ all the way to ‘this is a decade’s worth of declines,'” Strickland said.

It turns out there is a whole lot of other data airports have not been looking at that could be helpful.

“Hotel reservations would be one,” said Anthony Mancuso, director of consulting with the analytics company SAS. “If you wanted to, restaurants, sightseeing. If people want to go back to New York, they are going to start looking at, what time does the Statue of Liberty open?”

SAS is located near RDU, and says it offered to help the airport with its forecasting at no charge. One of the things Mancuso suggested is tracking car rentals.

“You can download the number of people who have searched for rental cars,” Mancuso said. “And that’s usually an indication that someone’s going to travel somewhere. So it’s an alternative source of data that they hadn’t used before.”

A much better predictor than GDP these days. SAS said since it’s been working with Raleigh-Durham, it’s gotten calls from several other airports for forecasting help, both in the U.S. and abroad.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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