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Q&A: How airline furloughs could impact travel out of DIA

Based on TSA checkpoint numbers, Denver International Airport has fluctuated between being the first and second busiest airport since July.

DENVER — More than 32,000 employees of American Airlines and United Airlines will be furloughed after Congress failed to pass additional aid for the airline industry. The move will have implications for employees nationwide and could also impact travelers. 

"I think passengers and those who visit the airport will feel the effects of these furloughs," said 9NEWS Business Expert Ryan Frazier. "Certainly, the families and the employees who are impacted are going to feel it most acutely." 

According to a spokesperson for Denver International Airport, overall traffic at DIA has been growing since the end of April, with a 15% increase from July to August.

Based on TSA checkpoint numbers since July, Denver has fluctuated between being the first and second busiest airport.

October also looks to be a promising month with DIA airlines retaining 70% of the scheduled seats offered in the same month last year. 

In a statement, American Airlines told 9NEWS, "we remain adequately staffed for our current and future operation and we encourage our customers to fly American for their holiday travel plans. We are constantly evaluating our schedule to match the demand for air travel.” 

We wanted to know what impacts Denver could see from the furloughs so we took our questions to Frazier. 

(Editor's note: Responses may have been edited for context and clarity.)  

9NEWS: What are you anticipating the impact will be on DIA?

Frazier: The COVID-19 pandemic has just deflated airline traffic through the spring, the summer, and now going into fall. I expect hundreds if not thousands of United and American pilots, flight attendants, customer service representatives, ramp staff, facility personnel to be impacted. It’s going to have an impact and unless Congress acts to provide some sort of stimulus to support payroll for these airlines, it could go on for a while.

What does that mean for travelers?

Frazier: Unfortunately, travelers can expect to see limitations. Lines may take longer, customer service may not be as timely or friendly and unfortunately, they may very well see fees continue to rise. It’s kind of a double whammy. I think passengers and those who visit the airport will feel the effects of these furloughs. Certainly, the families and the employees who are impacted are going to feel it most acutely.

What advice do you have for travelers in the next few months?

Frazier: When you have fewer people to do the job, that typically means that lines can take longer and services are slower so set your expectations accordingly. Understand that many people are going to be furloughed. The level of service you expect when going to the airport could likely be reduced as well. Go into it knowing that. Give yourself sufficient time and be patient.

Do you anticipate any increase in travel over the holidays to help at all?

Frazier: Airline traffic fell off so sharply due to the pandemic that it is starting to crawl back, slowly, and steadily rebound. I just don’t think it’s going to rebound fast enough. That’s what you’re starting to see happen right now, the demand just isn’t there to support the labor costs. So, the airlines have had to make these reductions and who knows when these people may be returning to work. Even with the holidays, while we may see some traffic continue to pick up, there’s just such a hesitancy by people to return to flying that I don’t believe it’s going to support increased staffing or enough to get people truly back to work. This is truly going to take an act of Congress to infuse the airline industry with some form of stimulus in order to offset the furloughs and get people back to work and for passengers to be minimally impacted.

What will this mean for those traveling to Colorado for ski season?

Frazier: That’s going to be interesting. Vail Resorts reported in their recent quarterly report that season ski passes are up 18%. Clearly, people want to get out and get back to the slopes. I think we’re going to see some increased demand for ski season. At the same time, I still think it’s going to be overall less than what we would see if this pandemic and the flu are all hitting at the same time. I believe people’s concern for their health and their families is still going to reign as the high priority for most folks.

When do you think air travel will return to pre-pandemic levels?

Frazier: I think it will return once we have a vaccine and once we feel safe. Even the airport is projecting a 40% decrease next year in 2021. They still think it will be more than in 2020. It could take as late as 2022 or 2023 before we see air traffic and passengers return to DIA and Colorado airports at the level we saw in 2019.

What else should people in Denver with travel plans know about these furloughs?

Frazier: Airlines are going to continue to slash services until demand returns or until Congress acts to provide stimulus to the industry. The one thing we can do outside of being patient and setting our expectations is to remember it’s safe to fly. The airlines are going above and beyond to provide a very safe and clean environment. I have flown out of state on business on several occasions now. They do an extraordinarily good job of keeping the aircraft clean, enforcing the mask rules so that everyone’s health and safety are held to the highest priority. Fly if you can and help these airlines return to levels that can support keeping these folks working and providing us all friendly skies.

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