COVID-19

Airports explore new ways to forecast travel amid pandemic

Leoneda Inge Jan 11, 2021
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
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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
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

With a slow vaccine rollout so far, how has the government changed its approach?

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced changes to how the federal government is distributing vaccine doses. The CDC has expanded coronavirus vaccine eligibility to everyone 65 and older, along with people with conditions that might raise their risks of complications from COVID-19. The new approach also looks to reward those states that are the most efficient by giving them more doses, but critics say that won’t address underlying problems some states are having with vaccine rollout.

What kind of help can small businesses get right now?

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans recently became available for pandemic-ravaged businesses. These loans don’t have to be paid back if rules are met. Right now, loans are open for first-time applicants. And the application has to go through community banking organizations — no big banks, for now, at least. This rollout is designed to help business owners who couldn’t get a PPP loan before.

What does the hiring situation in the U.S. look like as we enter the new year?

New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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