As the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the U.S. and decimated travel last spring, Brian Ryks was behind the wheel of a rapidly unfolding crisis in the air travel world.
As the executive director and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, Ryks is in charge of Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) as well as smaller airports in the region. This time last year, he was helping steer the airport through the great unknown as travel collapsed: Traveler numbers at the airport sunk by more than 97%.
A year later, things are looking up. A surge in travel over spring break hasn’t let up as vaccinations gain steam, building newfound confidence in travel. So we spoke with Ryks this week about the outlook for travel returning to pre-pandemic normal, new routes out of Minneapolis, the prospect of marquee international flights returning, and major changes in store as travelers return to the airport.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
This time last year, travel was at rock bottom. After a spring break surge and vaccinations underway, is this the start of a return to normal?
That’s what it feels like to me. When you just look at departures, the average daily departures (number of daily flights departing the airport) in May is now 346. That number jumps to 405 in June. We’re moving more quickly in that direction. Unless we get another big wave for some reason because of a variant … I see things continuing to move forward.
What I tell my team is: “We’ve made it through it.”
I certainly think there’s pent-up demand. In the past, we’ve taken the ability to travel for granted. When something gets taken away, like it did in the last year, it means that much more. I think people will return to the skies quicker than we’re anticipating.
It feels a lot better this year. I thought 9/11 was going to be the biggest speed bump in my career. But 9/11 was no comparison – from an impact on the industry – to this.
The airport commission has previously estimated travel numbers wouldn’t return to pre-COVID levels until 2024 – a sentiment echoed across the airline industry. With travel on the upswing now, are you optimistic it will come back faster?
I would hope that we would get there sometime in 2023 if we can figure out how to streamline international travel. Once we can figure some of these things out and make flying simple again, I think it will come back much more quickly than we anticipated.
What about business travel? That’s so critical – not just for overall travel numbers, but for airlines’ bottom line as well.
We’re hoping that we’ll start to see some meaningful business travel return late third into the fourth quarter. I’m not sure what that means yet. The big question is how much of the Zoom and the Microsoft Teams and all of that, how much of that will impact. What will be the percentage loss on business travel when it’s all said and done?
We still don’t know. We’ll know in a few years. My personal feeling is business travel is going to come back a little bit quicker than people anticipate.
We’ve seen airlines launch exciting new routes from MSP and elsewhere – new flights to Alaska, coastal beach towns, and more.
From a domestic standpoint, we’ve certainly seen some good, nice news.
Southwest adding Houston (HOU) and Austin (AUS). Austin is scheduled to start in June. Houston started in March. Delta has added Providence (PVD), Portland, Maine (PWM) and Myrtle Beach (MYR) in June. Alaska is adding service to Anchorage. Sun Country is doing a lot, with nine spring and summer routes and five routes for winter.
Did Alaska Air’s decision to challenge Delta with nonstop flights to Anchorage catch you offguard?
I think it kind of did, yeah. I think we were surprised by that. They’ve never flown that route before. It may have been a little bit of a competitive decision – that’s how these things sometimes work. We’ll see how it goes. They’re both fantastic carriers and both have passengers that are loyal to each of them.
What about MSP’s international routes? Can you get them all back?
That’s where we certainly are prioritizing our efforts.
We want to get a read on when businesses feel that travel will return. As part of that information, trying to glean which routes are more important to prioritize to return sooner than others. That’s where our focus will be. We want to be aggressive, and we want to be proactive.
Mexico City (MEX) starts (Wednesday), so that’s a good sign. With Mexico City, that’s certainly some business focus there.
Icelandair, we’re hoping as early as June. Condor hopes to relaunch service (to Frankfurt) in June as well. Delta markets like London (LHR), Paris (CDG), Tokyo-Haneda (HND), they’ve got it identified to start this summer. (Delta’s flight to Amsterdam resumed back in October 2020)
The one thing we’ve seen: They’ll put something on the schedule and then they’ll pull it back. It all depends on what they see from a demand standpoint. The ease of travel is the other thing.
What about the nonstop flight to Dublin on Aer Lingus, which was permanently suspended last spring after a launch in 2019? Are you confident you can get that back?
It certainly was disappointing – disappointing but I understood that. There wasn’t anything identified for 2021.
I think they’re waiting a little bit. We’re going to work hard on that one. It’s one that I think was fairly successful. Hopefully, to get that back sometime in 2022 would be our focus.
Across the airline industry, we’ve seen airlines consolidate their flights, operating fewer frequencies and flying only between major hub routes internationally, like flying Delta from Minneapolis to Amsterdam and then connecting elsewhere in Europe with KLM. Is that change here for good?
I don’t believe it’s going to be part of the new normal. It’s the new normal right now, obviously. It’s going to depend on how quickly we can streamline international travel.
I think the big question is: When will we get to a solution that opens up these international corridors? And which corridors are going to be to start with? Long-term, once all of this gets ironed out, I would suspect that we’ll be back to a more traditional international network like we saw pre-COVID.
It’s not easy to fly internationally. It’s not easy to fly to Hawaii right now. We’ve got to get to a point where flying can be as streamlined as possible.
Even in the midst of the pandemic, Sun Country took the airline public. What does that mean for the airline’s growth in and outside of MSP?
I think it’s been fantastic. Sun Country for years was up and down, really trying to find the model that worked best for them, a model that would result in long-term profitability. I think (Sun Country CEO) Jude Bricker and his team have done that now.
It’s too bad COVID hit when it did. It certainly stunted their progress a little bit. But it seems to me that they’re just picking up where they left off. I think it’s allowed them to discover how strong of a market Minneapolis is. From an airport perspective, when you look at a large hub airport, we are extremely cost-competitive for them to operate at.
Even throughout the pandemic, you’ve made some major changes and moved full-steam ahead with huge projects at the airport. What should travelers expect to see?
I don’t even want to call it a silver lining, but if there was a positive to the COVID situation, it gave us the ability to move some projects ahead without interrupting passenger flow.
The changes that passengers will notice are more square footage, larger baggage carousels … and a much lighter and modern environment in baggage and ticketing.
We added 15 feet to the front of the terminal. We’ve had to do that in multiple phases, but we’ve been able to move that along. We just haven’t had the congestion during this time. And the real benefit of that project: The extra space helps us with the social distancing aspect.
There’s the Concourse G expansion, gates G17 to G21. We’ve added a tremendous amount of square footage down there.
We’ve seen massive changes to the travel experience in the last year. What changes do you expect will fade away, and what’s here to stay?
The things that I would hope that go away are the face coverings and social distancing as more and more people are vaccinated. That’ll depend on personal preference and what you’re comfortable with.
Our goal even prior to COVID was to create as streamlined a passenger journey as possible: TSA ID checks, pre-booking parking. Our concessionaires have online portals so that customers can order food and get it delivered at their gate, if they’d like. I think those things will all stay.
Seattle (SEA) recently started a pilot on virtual queueing at TSA security checkpoints (a new test program allowing travelers to digitally reserve their spot in the TSA line, as reported by USA Today). Those are things we’re looking into.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could present your credentials at one location and not have to worry about it the rest of the way? I think that’s where we need to get to. We’re not there yet, but COVID has certainly pushed innovation and technology to a new level.