Only a handful of passengers wait to board a Southwest flight out of Long Beach Airport’s south concourse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Long Beach Airport has taken a massive financial hit due to the coronavirus pandemic, which caused passenger numbers to plummet, at one point down more than 95% over last year.

“At the beginning of the year, we had a positive outlook for the airport,” Airport Director Cynthia Guidry said. “We forecast some great numbers for the entire year. However, once the news of the pandemic hit, within a couple of weeks the decline in travel was sharp. It was significant.”

Both January and February passenger figures were up by more than 10,000 over last year but in  March, travel dipped to less than half of the same month in 2019. Passenger traffic through the municipal airport bottomed out in April, which saw 97% fewer travelers than April 2019.

As the months dragged on, passenger numbers slowly increased but, as of October, passenger traffic was still down more than 80%. Though 53 daily flights are allowed at the noise-controlled airport, only around 20 slots are being utilized.

“I got into the industry right before 9/11, which had, what we thought, was a significant impact on air travel,” Guidry said. “But that really pales in comparison to what happened this year.”

The airport’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. Fiscal year 2020 saw a 49% decrease in total passenger enplanements down to just under 905,000 from over 1.75 million. Such drastic declines in passenger numbers have had devastating effects on the airport’s bottom line.

In 2019, the airport enjoyed more than $44 million in operating revenues, while shelling out just over $34.77 million for expenditures. While the airport had about the same expenditures in 2020, operating revenue declined 31% to just over $30 million for a shortfall of nearly $4.38 million.

A woman pushes a baby in stroller through the otherwise empty north concourse at Long Beach Airport. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The hardest hit revenue stream was concession sales, which declined 47% year-over-year. JetBlue’s departure from the airport compounded the impacts of the pandemic on concession revenue.

With Hawaiian Airline’s single daily flight suspended due to the pandemic and JetBlue’s flights drastically reduced and then terminated altogether, the north concourse concessions—4th Street Vine, Sheldrake Coffee Roasting, George’s Greek Cafe, Taco Beach Cantina and more—only opened sporadically this year.

The saving grace for the airport came in the form of $18.4 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act. While airport staff are participating in the city’s furlough program to cut down payroll expenses, no one has been laid off, which makes the CARES Act funds a grant that does not have to be repaid. The grant offset revenue losses by funding labor expenses in the second half of the 2020 fiscal year.

“We spent the bulk of the CARES funds last fiscal year and we’ll spend the balance in ’21,” Guidry said. “We’re looking at every single area of our services and seeing what we can cut, what we can shave. I certainly hope there is movement for additional [federal] funds next year. That will make a dramatic difference in what we can and cannot do.”

Vendors at the airport have also furloughed some employees and temporarily laid off others, Guidry said, noting that slowly they have been brought back on. Larger numbers are expected to return to work when Hawaiian resumes daily flights out of the north concourse later this month.

Despite the previous and possible future federal funds, Guidry said it will probably take around five years for the airport to fully recover from the pandemic. The forthcoming vaccine will help bolster the confidence of the general public to travel but passenger numbers are still expected to rise gradually.

“This is definitely the most significant change I’ve seen in the industry,” Guidry said. “But we have a certain vibe. We are still going to be the airport of choice, attractive to those who need to travel.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.