Regional airline Contour kicked off its direct flights from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Nashville in mid October with fanfare — balloons, a three-piece band, an airline-executive greeting party at the gate.
But just around the corner was a new COVID-19 variant, and three months later, Contour Airlines pulled two of those three routes from the Indianapolis International Airport.
“Honestly the timing was just poor,” Contour CEO Matt Chaifetz said. “We’re still committed to Indianapolis.”
The airline is demonstrating this commitment by keeping its Nashville connection which, of the three, weathered the rough December and January months the best. Chaifetz said this route has the strongest mix of business travel, which is suffering the most, and leisure travel, which is rebounding the strongest.
The three routes were envisioned for primarily business travelers, because they provide there-and-back nonstop service to destinations that are also reachable by car, known as “drive markets.”
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Contour’s aircraft are small, fitting 30 to 50 passengers, meaning they are more likely to capture those fringe business travelers and make such trips financially feasible.
When Contour announced this intention in July, the pandemic outlook was looking much more positive. Passenger counts nationwide were finally reaching close to 2019 levels.
In mid-October, Chaifetz said the first flight out from Indianapolis, to Milwaukee, was 70% full. The first month rounded out an average of about 40% full bookings, and that figure was climbing into November.
But as Omicron came on the scene, the trend plateaued. At one point during the holiday months, a fifth of his pilots were out with COVID.
“It wouldn’t have made sense to operate without seeing growth,” he said.
Passenger boardings at the Indianapolis airport plateaued from November to December, according to the Indianapolis Airport Authority, when the airport usually sees an uptick. Nationwide, daily passenger counts that were consistently above 2 million in November were beginning to trail below that in December, and in January, they often dipped below 1.5 million, according to the TSA.
In early January, Contour pulled Milwaukee and Pittsburgh from its Indianapolis roster. Chaifetz felt validated by his own experience — about three weeks ago, flying on a 130-passenger Delta plane from his home in New York to his office in Nashville on a Monday morning, there were just 9 passengers.
But with each week, that number, by his count, has kept doubling.
He hopes to bring those markets back sometime this year, as business travel returns.
The Nashville connection is already showing positive signs: on average, more than 50% week-over-week growth in bookings in February and March.
Contour has had its sights on establishing drive markets from Indianapolis since February 2020 — the first time the pandemic derailed its plans.
“We still really believe in all of these markets,” Chaifetz said.
Through a spokesperson, the Indianapolis Airport Authority did not respond to a request for comment.
Contact IndyStar transportation reporter Kayla Dwyer at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @kayla_dwyer17†