Demand for air travel at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport this holiday season was the strongest since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last spring. And a survey released Monday indicates that more than 40% of the passengers queried said they'd travel again tomorrow if they could.
The budding optimism among MSP air travelers comes despite an advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggesting that postponement of travel could stem the coronavirus' spread.
Travel on most days during the holiday season at MSP remained between 50 and 65% below demand from the same period a year ago. But this past weekend, travel was down as little as 42% from 2019 levels, according to Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC).
"We have a very long way to go for air travel demand to recover from the pandemic," Hogan said. "Still, it is clear that for many people, the desire to spend the holiday with family and friends outweighed their fear of coronavirus."
Nearly 40 million passengers traveled to and from MSP Airport in 2019; figures for 2020 are not yet available.
Over the years, the MAC has asked passengers about their airport experience. But this summer, the survey was launched as a way of measuring sentiment about flying during the pandemic and how travelers feel about the commission's virus-related safety measures.
The pandemic has changed consumer behavior and the survey helps gauge travelers' "hopes, concerns and needs," said Naomi Pesky, the MAC's vice president for strategy and stakeholder engagement, at a commission meeting Monday.
Feedback was gleaned through social media, as well as the airport's website and newsletters.
Of 812 travelers surveyed since June, a growing number have said they were willing to travel tomorrow — beginning with 34% on average in June and July, and culminating with 51% in September and October.
Should they choose to fly, 74% on average said they would feel "comforted" if employees donned masks, face shields and gloves throughout the airport.
Last summer, the commission launched a safety campaign called Travel Confidently that stepped up social distancing and cleaning of restrooms and high-touch areas, as well as recommending that travelers wear masks. Survey respondents overwhelmingly indicated that the airport will take the necessary precautions to keep them safe.
"You can't walk more than 50 feet without seeing a Travel Confidently hand sanitizer station," said Phil Burke, the MAC's assistant director for customer experience. More than 250 stations have been placed throughout MSP's terminals.
The vast number of passengers surveyed — an average of 71% — took to the skies for leisure travel, while just 14% were flying for business purposes, according to the survey.
"Business travel has almost entirely been paused," said Steve Gentry, the MAC's customer research analyst.
Demand for amenities at MSP, including shops and restaurants, has changed dramatically during the pandemic. The survey indicated that, on average, about 87% of travelers said they prefer fare from grab-and-go restaurants.
Restaurants at MSP are exempt from Gov. Tim Walz's executive order banning indoor dining because they're considered critical infrastructure. About 40% of MSP travelers are connecting to other flights, so they would have no other options for dining.
The pandemic and its economic fallout have resulted in roughly 40 of 77 food concessions closing at both terminals, with remaining outlets operating mostly with limited hours.
When asked how the airport could best promote social distancing, those surveyed suggested reducing the number of tables at various eateries.
An average of 63% of the respondents said they expected retail shops and newsstands to be open, while spas and salons ranked lowest on the list of desired amenities.
Another sign of the times: Most passengers get their information regarding health-related travel guidelines from airline, airport and government websites, including the CDC and Transportation Security Administration. Still, an average of about 17% said they got their guidance from "word of mouth."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752