Maine’s two largest airports are bracing for busy summers this year, the result of rising vaccination rates, pent-up demand for travel and the addition of several new flights.
Airlines have announced numerous new flights at both Bangor International Airport and Portland International Jetport this year that will run during the summer travel season. Bangor Airport has added flights to and from Atlanta, Boston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, while Portland will bring new service to and from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh and Tampa.
While the new flight offerings do not guarantee ticket sales, they are a sign of optimism in the airline industry as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. It also comes as many states in the U.S. begin to lift restrictions on businesses, though many activities and destinations popular with tourists remain closed or restricted.
Pent-up demand from a travel-deprived public looks like it will make for a busy summer at Bangor International Airport, Director Tony Caruso said. It looks to be a similar situation at Portland International Jetport, which will see a record number of available passenger seats in June and July, according to Director Paul Bradbury.
Bradbury and Caruso noted that domestic travel would likely return more quickly than international travel as airlines focus on marketing direct flights to popular destinations around the U.S. Caruso said this was exemplified by several of the new flights in and out of Bangor, including new direct flights to and from Miami and Dallas-Fort Worth.
“I think the airlines have recognized that this region offers a good, stable environment for them,” Caruso said, “both on the leisure and the business side.”
But the airport directors also acknowledge that leisure travel is more likely to bounce back sooner than business travel, as online meetings have replaced business trips and large trade shows have been canceled.
Both the Bangor and Portland airports have seen large drops in passenger numbers during the pandemic.
Traffic at Bangor International was lowest immediately after the pandemic began. The airport saw only 2,300 passengers in April 2020, a 95 percent decline from April 2019. But some traffic has returned. Passenger volume in February of this year was only 65 percent lower than February 2020’s numbers.
Many barriers remain for the future. Museums, restaurants and landmarks at many popular tourist destinations remain shut down or restricted. It’s also uncertain whether business travel will ever fully bounce back.
Some Americans may be apprehensive about even getting on a plane, though the strong ventilation on commercial flights makes transmission unlikely if social distancing is maintained, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In addition, travelers to Maine may feel more comfortable as many out-of-staters know the state has seen some of the lowest COVID-19 rates anywhere in the U.S. throughout the pandemic, Bradbury said. Maine currently has the highest rate of fully vaccinated people of any state in the country — about one-third of its population.
“Maine is really fortunate on the schedule of vaccinations,” Bradbury said. “Another 30-60 days, and we would have lost yet another tourism season for our state.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its travel guidance on April 2 to say that fully vaccinated people can travel throughout the U.S. safely, though it is continuing to recommend masking, social distancing and hand washing for that group. The CDC recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated get tested for COVID-19 before and after their trip.
International travel is a more complex question amid the emergence of several new COVID-19 variants and differences in the speed of vaccinations from country to country. On Monday, the U.S. State Department announced it was extending its “Do Not Travel” recommendation to 80 percent of countries due to the pandemic.
Several popular international spots remain closed to most Americans, including Canada, Italy and Spain. France, which usually sees millions of American tourists annually, plans to open to vaccinated Americans next month.
While Caruso said air travel is safe, especially with all of the new sanitization and masking protocols, he acknowledged that some still might not want to take a flight during a pandemic. Yet he hopes rising vaccination rates will encourage people to feel confident about returning to the skies.
“We’re here and ready whenever you’re ready to start flying,” Caruso said.