By Robert M. Sellards, Esq.
Co-Managing Partner of the law firm of Bailes, Craig & Sellards, PLLC in Huntington, WV
As an attorney, husband and father of 2 young kids – my family travels a lot and I consider those of us in the Kanawha Valley blessed to have two airports within an easy drive to help travelers with their business and leisure travel needs.
In my observation, air travel has recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic and returned to a more normal pace. But we now are seeing some new challenges that have a particular effect on smaller airports, especially now that the holiday season is upon us. And I hope travelers out there don’t blame Tri-State and Yeager for these challenges.
According to travel experts like AAA, Thanksgiving holiday travel actually exceeded pre-pandemic levels nationwide, and the same likely will be true for Christmas/New Year’s Eve travel.
I am sure the leadership at Tri-State Airport just outside Huntington and Yeager Airport in Charleston are thrilled to see more leisure travelers in their airport terminals. But I think we all have experienced flight disruptions in the last several months that are worse than ever before. Last-minute flight cancellations and long delays that result in missed connections have ruined trips or caused families to change their travel plans altogether and avoid trips requiring air travel.
When people stop booking flights out of our local airports, that affects their ability to keep popular commercial airline routes.That’s not good for families or businesses that rely on air travel.
So where is all the flight disruption coming from? I’m told there are a lot of reasons from workforce issues to inflationary cost over-runs, but there is another complication that definitely isaffecting West Virginians travel plans, and it’s the state of air travel in some of these final destinations – such as Florida.
Florida – for instance is a wonderful destination with tremendous upside for both vacation and business travel. That said, the Sunshine State’s airspace bottleneck has caused ripplesacross the state and the country, and it’s because federal regulators have not reacted appropriately or quickly to several factors, most notably the growth of private air travel. Private air travel sky rocketed in Florida over the last year, growing by some 100,000 flights. Those flights now compete for the same routes as commercial airlines.
Additionally, Florida also has space launches that eliminate hundreds of miles of available sky for aircraft for hours at a time, taking away flight routes for both commercial and private planes. So as the number of aircraft vying for flight times or routes increases and large swaths of airspace are taken away for periods of time, you inevitably get delays and cancellations thatimpact travelers far beyond Florida.
We see this manifest at Tri-State and Yeager and countless other airports with last-minute flight delays and cancellations by the commercial carriers because of issues originating elsewhere – often in Florida. We also have seen a decrease in bookings specifically to Florida for vacations because of the well-publicized delays and cancellations.
Smaller airports work hard to maintain flight occupancy levels so the commercial carriers will continue to offer the routes we West Virginians love – especially to locations like sunny Florida. But they cannot control challenges outside their own air space.
While we’ve focused on Florida, this issue is larger than only one state. This obviously is not an easy problem so solve and with bi-partisan cooperation – it can be fixed. Leaders need to understand that this problem has the same negative consequences as a backed-up highway, except the underlying issues are more difficult to solve.
As we all cope with the potential for travel complications this holiday season, I hope our local air passengers pause and remember their wrath should not be directed at our local airports and their hard-working employees. Instead, raise your voices to the Federal Aviation Administration so they understand how the confusion and congestion in a crowded air space like Florida is affecting travelers in smaller markets. Since we cannot make air space bigger, it can be better utilized and organized. The skies can be friendly again.