GREAT FALLS — “Right now is prime summer booking season,” said John Faulkner, director of Great Falls International Airport. “So there’s travel season, but you don’t wake up and decide you’re leaving for Cancun tomorrow.”
“I know I certainly don’t,” I joke. We laugh, but he makes an important point. Faulkner says overarching hope at GTF is that June and July will look more like pre-COVID-19 summer vacation than last summer did. But in order for that to happen, people would need to start booking their summer trips now, or already have them booked. Faulkner says that will depend on how Cascade County and Montana as a whole are doing with COVID-19 vaccination numbers.
Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention announced new guidance regarding traveling domestically after you’re fully vaccinated. They say that, while non-essential is still not recommended just yet, anyone traveling after being fully vaccinated does not need to take a COVID-19 test before or after their trip, and they don’t need to quarantine once they reach their destination.
“Certainly, our hopes were buoyed by that,” Faulkner said. “When I look at the Great Falls numbers, I think we’re doing an exceptional job of getting people vaccinated. I noticed that over half the eligible population has already been vaccinated, and that’s just great. So, hopefully, by the time we get to June and July when the schools let out and people start to travel, we’ll have a good vaccinated local population that gets an opportunity to vacate this summer.”
According to the U.S. Transportation Security Agency, more than one million travelers have passed through TSA checkpoints every day since March 10, 2021. That’s the longest such streak since the pandemic caused traveler numbers to nosedive last March. While airports across the country and the world prepare to welcome more and more people back through their doors and into seat 1A and beyond, Great Falls International Airport officials have already been preparing. In fact, a lot of what needed to be done is already done, or will be soon.
“We kind of have a big slug of capacity that just wasn’t used in the last year, so we did take the opportunity to renovate the bathrooms, which will be wrapping up here in a couple weeks,” explained Faulkner. “As the lines get longer again, we have tried to mark on the floors, in most places, six feet of distance, most airlines have done that, a lot of them have put hoods over their seats just so people can’t sit right next to each other, so most of that stuff has been done.”
At an Airport Authority Board meeting last week, officials said that there are currently no plans to stop requiring masks at GTF, but they do hope to be able to revise that as we move into the summer and vaccine numbers continue to rise.
Another devastating impact of the pandemic has been the lack of travel to and from Canada. The United States’ neighbors to the North used to make up a considerable portion of the travel numbers coming through Montana. Faulkner says that on some of their flights, Canadian passengers can account for over 40% of the total volume of travelers, especially on flights to popular destinations like Phoenix and Las Vegas.
“That has been a tremendous struggle to replace that,” he admitted. “Unlike locals, who can bug their neighbor to take them to the airport at five in the morning, those Canadians don’t have a neighbor, so they make up a lot of our parking revenue and that kind of thing. It’s been a real struggle. We’re very anxious to see our Canadian friends again.”