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Weekend edition September 16, 2022 | Tom Ballard

What’s up at the airport? Higher fares, bigger planes, fewer crews, and more passengers come to TYS in 2022

By Shannon Smith, Teknovation Assistant Editor, PYA

Masks aren’t required, lines are getting long, and parking is filling up again. Those are all signs that Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport is headed back to its usual routine as East Tennessee’s largest airport.

If you’re flying again, you’ll notice a few things heading in and out of TYS, the official abbreviation for McGhee Tyson. Whether it be bigger planes, construction near the parking areas, or a much pricier airline ticket, they’re all indicators of how the flight industry is ebbing and flowing across the country.

Business or pleasure?

One of the biggest changes airport staff has noticed is who exactly is hopping on flights in and out of Knoxville.

“We were primarily a business market with some leisure travel,” said Becky Huckaby, Vice President of Public Relations for the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority.

The COVID-19 pandemic flipped that.

“More people are returning to air travel for the leisure component of it all,” said Huckaby. “Industry has indicated to us that 20 percent of the business travel that was there prior to COVID probably won’t come back because we have things like Zoom and teleconferencing and that opportunity.”

So instead of flying to a corporate meeting, people are putting the fun in flying again by taking vacations. And they’re coming back to the airport sooner than indicated.

Huckaby said TYS aimed to hit 2019 traveler numbers again by 2024.

Here are how many people have flown through TYS in the last 3 years:

  • 2019 – 2,572,822
  • 2020 – 1,161,447
  • 2021 – 1,995,197

Huckaby predicts they’ll fall short of the 2019 numbers this year. Not because of a pandemic, but rather the effects of one.

No crews, no cruising

Whether you’ve seen the headlines, or you’ve been impacted yourself, many know the summer of 2022 was a tumultuous time to try to take a flight. That’s a reflection on the airlines, and how they handled the quick return of passenger flights.

A pilot shortage means fewer people to fly planes. A flight attendant shortage means fewer people to crew those flights. Some major airlines were quick to offer their employees retirement plans during the pandemic, only to have to bounce back quicker than planned to meet the demand for air travel.

“They thought we had to 2024 as well to get everything back up and going,” said Huckaby. “And so, they’re seeing some of that crunch now, trying to get everybody onboarded and pilots trained and can safely navigate the equipment that they were being assigned to.”

That could delay TYS’s traveler numbers from getting back to their pre-pandemic levels.

“That is something that we’re seeing that could potentially impact us for the next few months, as the airlines are reducing flights or they’re canceling flights,” said Huckaby.

As far as local staffing at the airport, she said TYS is always hiring.

“We have enough to meet the capacity needs of our facility. But a lot of aviation-related businesses either had a hiring freeze, or didn’t replace people (during the pandemic),” said Huckaby. “It’s not just the airport itself or the airline service, it’s rental car agencies, it’s airport concessions food vending, Starbucks. You name it, people are looking for people to work in the airport environment.”

Sky-high prices

Airline tickets are more expensive now. There’s no avoiding that observation, regardless of which airport you’re leaving from.

A newly released report by SmartAsset looked at plane ticket price increases across the nation’s 100 largest airports. McGhee Tyson airport, ranking 89th in size, came in 4th place in biggest ticket price increase.

“We do monitor fares. We do see certain markets that drive that up more than others. And then we look at those kinds of studies to see how are they comparing us,” said Huckaby.

Huckaby said any of the lists that rank TYS, good or bad, need to be taken with a grain of salt.

“We’re on there, but we’re being compared – our fares – to places like Nashville, LAX (Los Angeles), places that have a lot of competition,” she said. Those places that are also notably larger. “And if you were inclusive of all 429 commercial airports, we probably wouldn’t be in your top.”

That doesn’t mean every plane ticket from Knoxville is cheap.

“Historically, that’s been an issue that we continually face. So, what we do is try to aggressively recruit low-fare carriers to our market. We are aggressive in talking to and making good business pitches to the airlines that currently serve our market about new destinations, or reductions in fares to markets,” said Huckaby. “But a lot of the times, it’s out of our hands. The airlines are the ones who actually set the airfare for each flight, and it can change three or four times a day based on the plane.”

Flight capacity, plane size, and fuel costs are just some of the factors that fluctuate prices. Huckaby said. TYS is working to accommodate more passengers, and it is possible to do that without making the airport physically larger

More flights, more places

That’s the jingle you hear on the radio, and staff works hard to keep it ringing true. Direct flights to Phoenix and Minneapolis-St. Paul were added in 2022, and TYS staff is always working to expand its reach.

One way she said the airport can offer what seems to us like more flights, is by using bigger planes.

“We’ve already started seeing the big planes come in on some of the flights,” said Huckaby, specifically referring to American Airlines. Delta has also started to bring bigger planes back to the Knoxville airport. “I think right now we have one. We expect it to be at two in another month or so for particularly the Dallas market.”

That means more seats for people headed that way. Huckaby said American Airlines identified TYS as a place where it is seeing growth and plan to start bringing more bigger planes to these runways.

She said right now there’s no plan to add more gates or terminals, but they’re always looking for internal ways to maximize use of space at the airport.

That could include gates no longer being dedicated to a single airline, but rather shifting depending on the flight so more planes can use those areas to board.

However, there is physical construction going on right now outside the main building, with the addition of a new parking lot. Huckaby said before COVID when TYS was flying more people than ever, people were having to park wherever there was space, be it a designated spot or not.

“We are in the process right now of constructing what we call ‘Parking Lot E,’ and it is on the other side of the Airport Hilton, which would be additional overflow parking if we get back into that situation,” said Huckaby.

She said they’re always evaluating growth, and the airport board is currently updating its master plan in terms of what’s best to innovate and continue serving customers.

If you ever have a question for the airport, all you have to do is ask.

“We’re an open door,” she said. “Just email us through our website, visit us on any of our social media platforms, we’re here to answer any questions you might have.”

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