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Uptick in Air Travel Suggests Richmonders Are Getting Antsy

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(Joe Mahoney CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The concourses at Richmond International Airport are no longer a ghost town. Amtrak is adding back daily service on three routes stopping at Staple Mill Station beginning June 7. And the phones are ringing again at Richmond-based travel firm Tour Plan International.

“It is a beautiful sound,” said Stella Capocelli Carter, the company’s president. “We're expecting a huge boom based on just the phone calls that we've been receiving.”

Vaccinations and a dip in COVID-19 infections has brought hope to Richmond’s beleaguered travel industry. 

It’s welcome news at the airport, too. Passenger traffic dipped 65% in 2020 overall, including a 97% drop last April, after a record-setting 2019. Troy Bell, a spokesperson for the airport, said the situation steadily improved last summer before plateauing for the rest of the year. January and February of this year were also slow.

“And then it's almost like someone hit a switch,” Bell said. 

The early weeks of March brought spring breakers and other travelers itching to see loved ones or get away. “Maybe this is the turnaround that we have been looking for for many months,” Bell said.

Direct flights to Houston and Minneapolis that were cut last year could be back as early as May.

Other airlines added new routes last year. Southwest now offers flights to its hub in Chicago-Midway. JetBlue began offering flights to Tampa, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles in December, though the latter two routes will pause service for a month in April before resuming in May. 

Still, Bell cautioned that it could be years before passenger traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels.

Amtrak is also betting on a rebound as it marks its 50th anniversary. Ridership at Staples Mill Station dipped roughly 45% in 2020 compared to the prior year. The company scaled back service on three lines going through the station to four days a week beginning in October, according to Amtrak spokesperson Kimberly Woods.

The Palmetto (New York to Savannah), Silver Meteor (New York to Miami) and Silver Star (New York to Miami) will resume daily service to Staples Mill on June 7. In the longer term, Amtrak as well as state and federal governments are working on a project that will extend Amtrak’s higher speed service of up to 150 MPH south to Richmond.

Stella Capocelli Carter said the pandemic has forced her to reconsider a business model that served the firm since her father and uncle started it in 1966. Carter said she’s now focusing less on booking and more on advising clients on how to navigate the patchwork of pandemic regulations and safety considerations. 

In the shorter run, Carter said her clients are looking at domestic destinations (Florida, the West Coast, Hawaii) or the Caribbean. She’s offering European tours beginning in the fall, cautioning people against Italy until October or November. While younger honeymooners remain “gun shy” after cancelled weddings, Carter said, “seasoned travelers” and retirees with flexible schedules are ready to hit the road. 

“They are the ones that are antsy,” Carter. “They are the ones that have been vaccinated or are getting vaccinated, and they're the ones that are going to be ready to go immediately.”