Spring break travel out of Grand Rapids airport expected near pre-pandemic level

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Spring breakers are expected to make the Gerald R. Ford International Airport the busiest it’s been since the pandemic began.

Estimates for the busy spring break period between April 1 and 10 continue to rise, approaching the pre-pandemic level of 2019.

Earlier this week, airport officials were expecting about 52,000 fliers. Now the estimates are more between 55,000 and 60,000 fliers. Not included in those estimates is some of the lead-up travel between March 26 and March 31.

“This will be the busiest period we’ve had for travelers since the pandemic began. Bar none. That includes Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years,” said Stephen Clark, director of commercial development at Ford Airport. “This will be the busiest week we’ve had.”

The current estimates are about 10% to 15% below the level of traffic during the 2019 spring break travel period at the airport and far above that of spring break 2020, which was “the worst travel period in the airport’s history,” Clark said.

“There was no spring break travel for that period,” he said.

Related: Grand Rapids airport is nearly empty with plane ridership falling 90 percent because of coronavirus

Clark pointed to a few factors that could be driving the return to near-normal spring break travel, including increased vaccination efforts and availability and the work Ford Airport has done to keep the airport clean and safe.

He also said the more than 30 non-stop destinations from the airport allows families more flexibility in where they can go and how they can spend their break, with some opting for more socially distanced vacations once they reach their destination.

Spring break travel also comes amid another surge in COVID-19 cases both across Michigan and in Kent County.

Kent County Health Department data shows a seven-day average of 260 cases per day on Tuesday, up from the average of 79 cases per day on March 1.

Related: Latest COVID-19 wave putting younger people in hospital, Kent County health leader says

The number of daily new cases largely stayed level throughout February after falling in early-to-mid January.

Ford Airport closed out 2020 down about half of the fliers it saw the year prior. In 2019, the airport welcomed 3.58 million passengers. In 2020, 1.75 million travelers used the airport.

Regular traffic at the airport is gradually climbing back but still expected to be down by year-end.

Current estimates, Clark said, forecast the airport closing out 2021 at about 70% of the traffic seen pre-pandemic in 2019, or about 2.6 million fliers.

Part of that is due to the gradual return of business travelers.

“We certainly haven’t seen that category, if you will, of traveler come back to the full extent that we did pre-pandemic,” Clark said. “We anticipate that being a softer recovery. It’s going to take a little bit longer for many companies in our area to put their people back out on the road again.”

Those who fly in and out of Ford Airport have done a good job abiding by COVID-19 rules and precautions to keep passengers and employees safe, Clark said.

“I’m looking down at the concourse here from my office and the amount of folks who are complying and wearing their masks and social distancing in line — West Michigan has done a great job of ensuring that when they come to the airport they’re staying safe,” he said. “We’re very appreciative of them being a partner for us in that.”

Clark said he wasn’t aware of any COVID-19 outbreaks among the airport’s staff or its tenant airlines.

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