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Austin Straubel reports drop in passenger traffic amid pandemic

By Kevin Boneske
Staff Writer

ASHWAUBENON – Air traffic continues in and out of Austin Straubel International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the number of passengers is a small fraction of what there should be this time of year.

During April, Marty Piette, airport director, said it typically averages around 2,500 passengers per day going through the screening checkpoint, when this past month the average was 42 per day.

“The airport has been operating at a bare minimum,” he said.

Piette said the airport’s flight schedule has been reduced with some airlines running only one flight per day and the number of passengers onboard is also down.

Austin Straubel did receive a federal CARES Act grant to continue to operate during the pandemic.

“Airlines are making adjustments due to the low number of passengers, but they are working through their schedules to ensure they can keep serving their markets and get essential travelers where they need to go,” he said.

Piette said medical professionals, members of the military, service technicians and flight crews being repositioned are among those who still must travel.

Along with the airport adding Plexiglas, using social distancing and cleaning and sanitizing areas where passengers go through, Piette said planes are also being cleaned and sanitized between flights to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

He said the airport’s administrative staff members remain on the job, either working from the office or remotely.

Piette said people who currently don’t need to be at the airport shouldn’t go there as the facility remains open during the pandemic for those who must fly.

In addition to Austin Straubel’s main terminal being open for commercial travel, he said the airport’s two Fixed Base Operators, Jet Air and Executive Air, also remain open.

“They continue to provide charter services, aircraft maintenance and fuel services for private planes, which are also being used for essential travel,” he said.

No comparison to pandemic

Piette said aviation is cyclical in nature with the number of flights and passengers, and various factors over the years have affected airports and airlines.

The temporary halting of commercial flights on 9/11 is one example.

Piette said that led to additional security measures being put in place that are now the “new normal.”

He said those measures, such as upgraded screening of passengers and not allowing those not flying to be able to go to the gates where passenger board and exit planes, remain today.

However, the pandemic’s prolonged effect on air travel, Piette said, is “much more significant and spread out” than when the airline traffic halted more than 18 1/2 years ago.

“This is no comparison,” he said.

With the state’s Safer at Home order slated to remain in effect through at least Memorial Day weekend, Piette said he expects May will have low passenger numbers at Austin Straubel, when airline traffic should be increasing going into the summer.

Piette said measures put in place at the airport to prevent the spread of COVID-19 could become the “new normal” once the pandemic is over.

“Air transportation is one of the backbones of our area’s economy, and we will be ready when things begin to return to a new normal – whatever that might be,” he said.

EAA impact

Piette said the cancellation of this year’s EAA Airventure will be terrible for the Oshkosh area where the annual event is held in late July.

He said there will also be an effect at Austin Straubel, where around 400 private airplanes would be expected to fly in during that time.

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