Southwest Florida International Airport sees stunning recovery from pandemic

Laura Layden
Fort Myers News-Press

It's not every day an airport can report a nearly 2,000% increase in passenger traffic. 

For the month of April, Southwest Florida International Airport did just that. 

The airport saw more than 1.1 million passengers — compared to about 53,000 in the same month a year ago, according to the Lee County Port Authority, the airport's operator.

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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, passenger traffic hit the second-lowest monthly total on record in April 2020.

"It was pretty awful and it happened very quickly," said Victoria Moreland, an airport spokeswoman.

The airport only saw less traffic in May 1983, when commercial air service relocated from Page Field to the regional airport. Since that move happened mid-month, the count of passengers didn't include two weeks of operations, however, making it artificially low — at less than 50,000.

Scenes from Southwest Florida International Airport on Tuesday, January 26, 2021.

The results from comparing this year's passenger traffic at Southwest Florida International to last year are understandably dramatic, considering where it stood at rock bottom.

However, it's not the only comparison pointing to the Fort Myers airport's remarkable recovery since last year.

Simply "stunning"

The passenger count last month came close to the record-breaking number seen at the same time two years ago.

The airport, known for short as RSW, handled 1,111,558 passengers in April 2019. That compared to 1,107,004 this year, a difference of about 0.4%, or 4,554.

Moreland describes the difference as simply "stunning."

There's more to boast about, she said, including how the airport stacks up against the competition.

When it comes to passenger recovery, RSW actually ranks at No. 1 in the nation, Moreland said.

That top ranking is based on passenger counts from January through April, when comparing 2021 to 2019. 

"We've recovered 77% of our traffic, compared to 2019, which was our banner year, best year ever," Moreland said. 

"It really is astounding how much traffic we have recovered year over year," she added. 

Phoenix Sky Harbor International ranks second in the nation for recovery, having recouped 66% of the passenger traffic it saw in 2019.

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Scenes from Southwest Florida International Airport on Tuesday, January 26, 2021.

Pent-up demand

While it's not over yet, May has been another bustling month at Southwest Florida International, with passenger numbers once again trending higher than in 2019, Moreland said.

Asked why the airport has seen such a quick turnaround, she said there's a pent-up demand for travel and the region remains an attractive place to visit for many reasons, from its natural beauty and small-town charm to its alluring beaches and tropical weather.

Due to the pandemic, travelers continue to prefer smaller destinations, with lower populations, inviting outdoor spaces and ample venues where they can spread out. In those ways, Southwest Florida fits the bill.

"Literally, the destination is selling itself," Moreland said. "We have a destination that speaks for itself."

Travelers move through Southwest Florida International Airport on Tuesday, January 26, 2021.

Last week, Fort Myers appeared as one of the top search terms on the popular travel search engine Kayak, Moreland said.

She credits the local visitor and convention bureaus for their continued efforts to market Southwest Florida as a desirable destination for leisure travelers.

People getting out more

Leisure travelers are driving the spike in flight demand. Tired of being mostly cooped up at home or staying local due to the pandemic, more Americans are eager to get away, and more comfortable doing so with new coronavirus cases on the decline and vaccinations on the rise.

The fact that Florida never adopted a statewide mask mandate or shut down the economy completely has helped draw more visitors here, giving them more freedom than they might have at home, or in other tourism spots, Moreland said.

In recognition of travelers' renewed and heightened interest in Southwest Florida, airlines are adding flights and seats to meet demand.

This summer, airlines will add more than 3 million seats at the local airport, compared to 2019, putting it first in the nation for added capacity, Moreland said.

In June alone, the new seats are expected to bump the number of daily flights up to 211, from 134 in 2019, a 57% increase, Moreland said.

Adding new destinations

Airlines aren't just adding seats at RSW. They're adding new destinations

Southwest, for example, has recently initiated flights to and from Chicago and Detroit, with plans to add Cincinnati to its menu of choices by mid-June.

In June, Spirit will start offering flights between Kansas City and Fort Myers.

Meanwhile, Sun Country plans to launch seasonal service to and from Duluth, Minnesota, and Green Bay and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, beginning in December, with plans to add Rochester, Minnesota in February 2022.

"It's a busy thriving airport," Moreland said, "and we're very proud of what we've been able to do in the last 15 months." 

The airport continues to require masks and to carry out myriad COVID-related safety protocols.

Safety measures include sanitizer stations and social distancing signage, announcements and floor markers throughout the terminal, as well as plexiglass shields at counters and other customer touchpoints. 

The dramatic increase in arrivals at Southwest Florida International is great news and very encouraging, said Jack Wert, executive director of Collier County's Convention & Visitors Bureau, in an email.

"We are seeing good increases in visitors and their related spending in our Collier businesses," he said. "The strong winter travel from our northern feeder markets is predicted to continue through our slower summer season, which is good news for our area economy."

Travelers check in at Southwest Florida International Airport on Tuesday, January 26, 2021.

Pamela Johnson, deputy director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, said the surge in airport traffic reflects a spike in consumer confidence, which is reflected in the tourism department's most recent sentiment surveys.

Airport traffic is a good indicator of how the local tourism industry is recovering from the pandemic as a whole, she said, as 72% of the county's visitors traditionally fly to reach the destination. 

Lee County's hoteliers saw a strong April, with an occupancy rate of about 80%, higher than in 2019, Johnson said, citing data from research firm STR.

STR data also shows revenue per available room up almost 14% in April, when compared to 2019, reflecting higher demand.

"Many of the hotels are saying they are expecting a strong summer this year ... due to pent-up demand," Johnson said. "We are really seeing a great rebound."

Making up for business travel drop

Southwest Florida is fortunate to have long been a draw for leisure travelers, looking to escape from everyday life, Johnson said.

It means local hotels and resorts rely less on business travelers to fill their rooms.

Some experts have forecast that corporate travel may not fully recover for several years.

International travel is expected to come back faster. At this point, it's still minuscule in Southwest Florida, due to government restrictions and limited flights.

"We believe the United Kingdom will be the first to return because their country has very high vaccination rates, and they're ready to travel," Johnson said. "It all really depends on the government." 

Travelers move through Southwest Florida International Airport on Tuesday, January 26, 2021.

Another good sign on the international front? This week the Lee County Port Authority shared news that the Lufthansa Group will start weekly nonstop flights between Southwest Florida International and Germany's Frankfurt Airport in March 2022.

Eurowings Discover will offer the long-haul flights three times a week.  

As for Canadian visitors, Johnson expects to see them return sooner, hopefully by fall.

Southwest Florida International has come a long way since the pandemic hit in March 2020.

As a result of the pandemic, the airport saw fewer than 6 million passengers last year. That compared to the all-time record high of more than 10.2 million in 2019.

The airport started seeing signs of a strong recovery in December, and they've only gotten stronger from there.

RSW handled more than 1.1 million passengers in both March and April, as the busy season hit its peak in Southwest Florida.