Reno airport sees passenger counts climb as COVID cases shrink

New non-stop flights on tap, including long-wanted service to Charlotte, N.C.

A United Airlines flight rolls on the runway at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in early April 2021. This summer, the Reno airport will have 25 non-stop destinations — the highest number in its history.

A United Airlines flight rolls on the runway at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in early April 2021. This summer, the Reno airport will have 25 non-stop destinations — the highest number in its history. Courtesy: Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority

A couple of months ago, Daren Griffin, CEO of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, saw something for the first time since the pandemic brought travel to a halt last spring.

“All of a sudden we had lines of people waiting for their bags, and checkpoint wait times that hadn’t existed for a couple of years,” Griffin told the NNBW in a video interview. “Spring breakers started getting here early in the month and our numbers just went through the roof.”

According to the airport authority, Reno-Tahoe International Airport’s passenger count in March was 252,828, a 30% jump compared the same month a year ago.

It was far from an unexpected uptick — after all, in mid-March 2020, COVID-19 shut down the country, and airports like Reno-Tahoe International watched their 
passenger traffic plunge by 96% in a matter of weeks.

All told, U.S. airlines carried 60% fewer passengers in 2020 than in 2019, bringing passenger traffic to the lowest level since the mid-1980s, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

While numbers have not returned to 2019 volumes, the influx of travelers flying in and out of the Reno airport this spring is an encouraging sign that consumers are ready to travel again.

In the first quarter of 2021, Reno-Tahoe International saw a total of 560,320 passengers, down 36% from Q1 of 2020. In April, though, passenger traffic was estimated to be at 74% of 2019 levels, according to the airport authority.

who became CEO of the airport in July 2020, expects those numbers to keep climbing as COVID-19 cases shrink and the number of vaccinated Americans grows. What’s more, come July, the Reno airport will have 25 non-stop destinations — the highest number in its history.

“Consumer confidence is roaring back,” Griffin said. “And I think it’s setting us up for what’s going to be a strong travel summer. People, having sat at home for a year and a half, want to take those family vacations. Pent-up demand is extreme.”


To meet the demand, airlines are also returning flights to RNO that were taken away last year as the pandemic grounded air travel. Back on the runway this month are JetBlue’s flights to New York, Frontier’s flights to Denver, and flights to Chicago from both United Airlines and American Airlines. Earlier this spring, Southwest and American each brought back Los Angeles flights.

Meanwhile, new non-stop flights on the horizon include:

  • May: Delta flight to Seattle; JSX flights to Las Vegas and Oakland.
  • June: Southwest seasonal flight to Orange County; Allegiant seasonal flight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming; American seasonal flights to Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • December: Alaska Airlines seasonal flight to Palm Springs.

Notably, Griffin said nonstop service between Reno-Tahoe International and Charlotte is “something the region has wanted for 10 years,” and will mark the first-ever route between the two cities.

With a bevy of airlines and flights on board, the Reno airport is now focused on filling the planes. As of May 3, passenger traffic is estimated to be “holding steady” at about 74% of the 2019 levels, according to the airport authority.

Griffin said their official summer forecast to hit at least 70% of what they saw in 2019. He added that international travel is going to be “slow to respond” as a number of countries battle rising COVID-19 cases, and many borders remain closed to American tourists.

“The big burden shifts from trying to attract airplanes to the market to trying to get people into those airplanes,” Griffin said. “Because airlines have a really short memory right now. When they see bookings going well, you get airplanes. And when they’re not, they put them someplace else faster than I have ever seen any time in my career.”


But, Griffin said, the airport authority is “very optimistic.” He pointed to Northern Nevada’s increasingly diversified economy and outdoor recreation opportunities as reasons Reno-Tahoe International will “come out of this faster and stronger than other parts of the country.”

To that end, he said the pandemic has also led to the airport tightening its partnerships with entities like the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority and Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada to ensure it’s serving the region on the tourism and business fronts.

“We want to make sure as we rebuild our route network that we’re offering the right kind of flights to the right kind of locations for folks and business travelers,” Griffin said. “Leisure and tourism are really important, it pays a lot of the bills in our region and here at the airport, but business travel’s equally important.”

“One of the things I’ve learned in my nine months,” he continued, “is we are blessed with lots of people that really want to get shoulder-to-shoulder and drive recovery through travel, tourism, and visitors from other places. If March and April are any indication, I think we’re already on a really good trajectory.”


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