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Few were flying in Michigan. Then spring break happened


Romulus — Virus cases might be surging in Michigan and other parts of the country, but wanderlust is starting to return because travelers like Christy Domenicucci and her family are itching to get out of the house. 

The 43-year-old Fraser resident admitted she was a bit nervous about traveling as she waited with her three children by the Delta check-in counter at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport this week before boarding their flight to Florida for a visit to Universal Studios.

"It's been a year since we left our house, and it's time," she said Monday. "We needed a mental break."

More than 1.5 million people nationwide flew on Monday, according to TSA travel data. And so far in April, as well as most days in March, the number of fliers across the country hit more than a million — a sign the industry is recovering from this time last year when the number of travelers numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

After a dismal 2020, Detroit Metro tallied 2.1 million passengers in January and February, still far from the 5.3 million the airport counted in those same pre-pandemic months last year.

But preliminary data shows spring break travel did contribute "to a spike in passenger traffic," Detroit Metro spokeswoman Erica Donerson said in a statement. "However, it’s too soon to tell if this increase will be sustained. Therefore, our forecast hasn’t changed. We are still expecting to welcome 22 million passengers to DTW this year" — compared to the almost 36.8 million passengers the airport saw in 2019. 

And this projection comes amid favorable guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last week said "fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves," possibly leading to more domestic travel since most international borders remain closed. 

Vaccination hope and pandemic fatigue are expected to continue playing into increased travel, too.

"The CDC’s new travel guidance is a major step in the right direction that is supported by the science and will take the brakes off the industry that has been hardest hit by the fallout of COVID by far," U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement last week. "As travel comes back, U.S. jobs come back."

Virus cases meanwhile are on the rise in Michigan and other states. Michigan is leading with 452.5 cases per 100,000 people, surpassing New Jersey and New York City, according to CDC data.

Travelers at Detroit Metro this week walked briskly from check-in to TSA security all while wearing masks. Masks are kept on while flying, too. 

"Just wear the mask and just get through and cooperate so you can get to where you're trying to go," said traveler Reginald Gilson, 49. The Detroit resident and his wife, Tonya Gilson, 50, had just returned Monday from Minnesota where they were visiting their daughter.

The Gilsons haven't been scared to travel, and they've been impressed by what they've experienced on other trips they've taken. Tonya, a travel lover, is heading to the Dominican Republic next. Her tip for traveling right now: "Pack your patience."

"And do your research," Reginald added.

Travel concierge Jill Jones of Cadillac Travel Group in Royal Oak "definitely" doesn't think potential travelers should put their trips on hold because holding off could cost more since airlines will be looking to make up money lost during the pandemic. 

"People that are booking fall and winter travel, those fares are progressively getting higher every day," she said. "There is no good reason to wait. I would say get it booked, but make sure you're booking in a manner that your money is protected and you can change it or cancel it."

Demand increasing

At a  J.P. Morgan Conference last month, Delta Air Lines Inc. executives reported seeing some encouraging signs in the industry. There was a "strong momentum in bookings" in March, and Delta has seen improvement in year-over-year net cash sales, the airline says in a summary of the conference on its website. 

“That holistic focus we've taken on the recovery is what gives me optimism as we start to see demand coming back in meaningful levels, and we start to see what I consider real glimmers of hope," Delta CEO Ed Bastion said during the presentation.

In the last year there were instances of "false hope," he added, but this time the hope "seems substantive. And though we've got a long ways to go yet, we always were in a much, much better place than we've been in quite a period of time.” 

Delta, which uses Detroit Metro as a hub, had to cancel flights this past Sunday because of staffing shortages. It opened up the middle seat to carry more passengers. The airline is scheduled to open the middle seat completely in May. Other airlines have already been selling their middle seats. 

Delta has called back 1,713 idled pilots, Bloomberg reported. Southwest said it was bringing back 209 pilots who will return from voluntary leave on June 1. And United Airlines is launching a new pilot training program.

The uptick in business is centered around leisure travel, experts and the airlines themselves say. Business travel hasn't yet made a similar comeback, with businesses switching to virtual meetings, conferences and corporate gatherings. 

"We’re continuing to see travel demand increase as travel restrictions ease and vaccinations rise," said Dan Landson, a spokesman at Southwest Airlines, in a statement. "Our main focus right now is on our leisure traveler as demand continues." 

Burkett Huey, a MorningStar aviation analyst, expects domestically focused airlines to see a return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023 and by 2024 for internationally focused airlines.

"What we're seeing is that things are turning," he said. "There are real justifiable reasons to be optimistic about the operations of these airlines over the coming 24 months."

Effects on business 

The airport is more than just airlines and passengers. Thousands work there. Detroit Metro, for example, provides $10.2 billion in economic impact annually. 

In the McNamara Terminal that's home to the Delta hub, two stores — Hugo Boss/Porsche Design and Corsa Collection — closed permanently at the end of February because of the effects of the pandemic, airport spokeswoman Donerson said. 

A new business, Jolly Pumpkin, opened in the North Terminal in March, though its opening was delayed since last spring because of the pandemic. 

Zingermann's Coffee Co., part of the Ann Arbor-based Zingerman's business group, is a wholesale vendor for various businesses at Detroit Metro and other airports. The business was growing between 10% and 15% a year before the pandemic hit. 

"For my overall business, the new norm for me will be at about 80% of where I was at before the pandemic began," managing partner Steve Mangigian said. "We will have just lost off the top 20% of our business as a result, and I'm going to have to build that back up just to get back to where we were before the pandemic began."

Joe Vicari, owner of the Italian restaurant Andiamo with a location at the airport, noticed a bit of an uptick in recent weeks with spring break travelers. But his business is still down at least 25% from 2019's sales. 

"Once everybody gets vaccinated, we're all hoping that it gets back to somewhat normalcy. I think people will be traveling a lot more," he said. "If you are still fearful of going into a restaurant or an airport, then you know you just don't go. But I think the majority of people want to get back to normalcy."

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall