ST. GEORGE — Though the pandemic initially gutted travel in and out of the St. George Regional Airport last April by 90%, the number of airline passengers passing through the airport has largely rebounded in the year since thanks to the area being a “hot market” for travelers.
“Airlines like our market right now,” Rich Stehmeier, the airport’s general manager, said during a conversation with St. George News during the online 2021 Dixie Regional Transportation Expo held earlier this month.
Just as the airline industry took a hit from the pandemic over the last year, so did the St. George Regional Airport. Passengers dropped by 90% at the lowest point by the end of April as passengers through the airport dropped from 29,000 monthly to 2,900, Stehmeier said.
However, in the months since, passengers through the airport have rebounded by 85%. Stehmeier attributed this to St. George being a “hot market” to visit due to its close proximity to Zion National Park, Snow Canyon State Park and offered other outdoor recreation and activities that had otherwise been restricted in other states due to COVID-19.
“So they can do stuff (here),” Stehmeier said. “That’s been a good, good thing.”
Overall, 180,000 people passed through the airport in 2020 versus the nearly 227,000 that did in 2019.
Flights that had been shutdown or reduced by the pandemic are also beginning to return.
American Airlines, which currently offers two flights a day out of Phoenix, will soon be adding a third daily flight starting in March. The airline will also restore service to the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Saturdays starting in March, and then daily starting in April.
Flights to Los Angeles remain uncertain, Stehmeier said. Airlines he has spoken to may restore service there to and from St. George in the next six or 12 months. Currently, the situation in California is questionable.
There has been some interest from budget airlines in starting a route to other California locations like San Diego, though Stehmeier said he could not go into further detail on this matter.
In addition to recounting the airport’s rebound thanks to people being drawn to the area, Stehmeier also reviewed the current status of the airport and future projects.
The airport sports a 9,300-foot run that is 150-feet wide and accompanied by 50-foot wide taxi-ways, with more room for expansion, Stehmeier said. The 33,500-square foot terminal can also be expanded and upgraded.
Over the next couple of years, there are plans to expand the terminal ramp and bring in three additional jet bridges, which will create seven gates overall for the airport.
Currently, the airport plays host to many different types of aircraft, from private to charter, and commercial to military.
Among the more common aircraft seen at the airport is the CJR200 and 700 passenger jets that each seat between 50 and 78 passengers respectively. These airplanes are able to fly in and out of the airport nonstop.
Larger planes, such as the a Boeing 737 and 757, can also be catered to at the regional airport, though only around three or four times a week, Stehmeier said.
However, larger planes, like a Boeing 747, would not be able to use the airport. This is not because of the runway but rather the much smaller taxi-way. The outer engines on the wings of the four-engine 747 would be hanging, not over the concrete of the 50-foot wide taxi-way, but over dirt, which can be sucked up into the engine and cause damage, Stehmeier said.
The airport will also be getting a new aircraft rescue and firetruck as mandated by Federal Aviation Administration regulations due to the age of the airport’s current aircraft rescue/firetruck. The FAA will cover up to 90% of the cost of the new vehicle.
An overview of the airport’s new 20-year master plan was shared during the online transportation expo, along with an online survey of what the public wants related to the airport, said Rich Lucas, the master plan’s project manager.
Under the master plan, planners anticipate the airport continuing to grow in demand and operation. Among future forecasts is the addition of a new regional carrier and possibly the addition of a smaller, “boutique” carrier.
The regional carrier would feature planes of up to a 70-plus seat capacity, while the boutique service would offer smaller, 9-30 seat planes that would fly out of the airport between one and three times a day.
There are also hopes that the airport will be able to host larger aircraft over the next 20 years, such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 on a more regular basis. Both planes will carry either an increased passenger or cargo capacity than the airport currently handles.
It is also estimated that the airport will be able to house up to 260 private aircraft by 2040 over the 177 it presently does.
Continuing expansion and upgrades to the terminal are also planned. In addition to the new ramp and jet bridges that Stehmeier mentioned, Lucas said they are planning to expand the terminal’s holding area, upgrade package screening and bring in food and beverage options beyond the vending machine already there.
While planning for expansions and forecasting, increased activity may seem like an odd thing to do in the pandemic era, Lucas said he believes the continuing activity within Washington County will support it.
“This is one of those more robust markets,” he said. “We’re confident this airport is going to grow.”
As the airport’s master plan is currently under public review. A part of this includes a survey currently hosted on the St. George Regional Airport’s website that the public can fill out regarding the airport’s future.
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