Pre-pandemic, Evansville Regional Airport was flying high. In 2019, it celebrated record commercial traffic, installation of a $6.5 million solar panel-covered parking lot, and the completion of an approximate $20 million terminal renovation. A $64 million runway expansion project in 2015 provided updated safety regulations. Tri-State residents could board daily direct flights to major air travel hubs in Chicago, Charlotte, Atlanta, Detroit, and Dallas and connect with ease to U.S. and international port cities. Evansville’s air travel future was bright.
Then, COVID-19 spread across the globe, and one of the first industries to suffer — and among the hardest hit — was travel. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates airports globally lost a collective $32 billion in 2020 from dwindling traffic, and EVV did not avoid the mounting losses. Passenger counts plummeted nearly 80 percent, airlines laid off employees and reduced flights, and the newly renovated terminal was void of travelers and guests.
After two years of weathering federal travel restrictions, airline staffing shortages, and unprecedented market unpredictability, Evansville Regional Airport is moving closer to recapturing its 2019 milestones and already has its eye to the skies of the future.
Evansville Regional Airport opened for commercial air service as Evansville Municipal Airport in 1928, on 260 acres along U.S. Highway 41 north of the city. The terminal opened in 1950, the same year the growing campus was renamed Dress Memorial Airport in honor of William H. Dress, who served as Evansville’s mayor in the 1930s and ‘40s. The terminal was replaced in 1988 with one designed by Hafer, and four new jet bridges followed in 2012.
Operating with an $8 million annual budget, EVV is a major economic driver for the Tri-State, with an annual economic impact of around $900 million, according to Tara Barney, CEO of the Evansville Regional Economic Partnership. The airport stays busy with a range of flights: From May 1, 2021, to April 30, 2022, EVV saw 35,460 operations (landings and takeoffs) comprising commercial airlines, corporate flights, leisure travel, cargo planes, and military aircraft.
Of the 300 people who work on its campus, 50 are employed directly by EVV; none were laid off during the pandemic. Other workers are employed by airlines as flight personnel, gate and ticket agents, mechanics, and baggage handlers; by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration as security agents; or by the Federal Aviation Administration as air traffic controllers.
Contributing to EVV’s finances is non-aeronautical revenue from land leases. The Evansville-Vanderburgh Airport Authority owns 1,900 acres in and around its campus four miles north of Downtown Evansville and has lease agreements with neighboring businesses located on its land. This includes the Hampton Inn by Hilton hotel on U.S. Highway 41; Berry Global’s one million-square-foot distribution center between the airport and Oak Hill Road; Tri-State Aero’s operations and private airplane hangars; and the Evansville Wartime Museum. According to EVV, its partnership with tenants of its mixed-use property contributes to the creation of more than 500 jobs.
“The airport’s economic impact is huge. The airport in many ways is the largest part of our whole logistics system,” Barney says. “It’s one of our strengths, and the fact that it’s strategically located is one of our benefits and calling cards to businesses that want to grow and expand.”
According to EVV Executive Director Nate Hahn, the airport’s revenue portfolio is evenly generated by parking, airline service, and other streams such as rented property.
“Something I’m very proud of is the fact that we do have a great team here that really does view the airport as both a business but also as a community resource and as the economic engine of the region. Because we view it in that way, we are very careful about where we’re spending money,” he says. “We’re investing in the right things. I’ll point to the solar canopies that have gotten us national attention. There is value in bringing national attention to our community — not just the airport, but the community as a whole providing that front door, coupled with the sustainability and energy savings.”
The airport authority did not raise rent rates during the pandemic and, in fact, has not since 2011, a decision Hahn credits to his predecessor, Doug Joest, who served as airport director from 2010 to 2018.
“I won’t say we’ll never adjust them; at some point, that will be a conversation. But going into the pandemic, we were fortunate enough to get CARES Act and other funds from the federal government to help support us,” Hahn says. “Our tenants all reached out to me at the beginning of the pandemic, just checking in. They assumed we were going to raise rent, and the amount of appreciation I got when I was like, no … we’ve been a well-run airport for a decade and have been able to keep our rates and charges low. We’ve been able to find funds elsewhere.”
The airport also fits into the Evansville Vanderburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau’s 10-year tourism master plan. Chief among the CVB’s analysis recommendations were increased focus on amateur sports, adventure tourism, the convention industry, Visit Evansville initiatives, and Downtown Evansville. Convention attendees and other long-distance visitors often choose to fly into the area, with EVV’s terminal acting as a front door to Evansville.
Every day, travelers guide their car into one of EVV’s parking spots and take a round-trip flight to Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte for between $200 and $500. Twice a week, vacationers can hop on an Allegiant Airlines flight to Florida, sometimes for as low as $50.
EVV logged a record number of enplanements — passengers boarding a flight — in 2019, with 248,000 people flying out of EVV. That number dipped to 106,000 in pandemic-plagued 2020 but then climbed to 163,000 in 2021.
To accommodate the influx of travelers, EVV expanded its economy lot in 2017 by 100 spots and is currently undergoing a second expansion to add another 300 spaces to the same lot. In 2020, the airport provided passengers with a new world-class parking amenity when it covered the close-in lot with solar canopies.
“One of our largest revenue streams is the parking lot,” Hahn says. “In 2019, we were shutting down drive lanes to park cars. We were so busy. It was an amazing problem to have. We are right now undergoing an expansion of our parking lot. People will say, ‘Why are you doing that now?’ Ultimately, that’s going to save us money over the next 20 years. Aviation is changing, but we’re preparing for that growth.”
To help pull itself out of the pandemic, EVV unveiled its Fly EVV First initiative in November 2021 featuring leaders of prominent area businesses such as Berry Global, AstraZeneca, Old National Bank, Koch Enterprises, Inc., Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana, CenterPoint Energy, South Central, Inc., Sigma Group, Sitex, and Rexing Companies, as well as E-REP and Visit Evansville. Companies entered an agreement with EVV to fly out of the local airport if ticket prices were within a certain range of regional airports’ fares.
“Tourcy always supports Evansville Regional Airport fly local initiatives,” says Tracy Wilson, founder of Mount Vernon, Indiana-based travel agency Tourcy LLC. “Tourcy sends out 200-plus travelers each year. All my local travelers prefer air from EVV. It’s convenient and has comparable rates to other gateways.”
Fly EVV First was meant to encourage companies to lead the community by example and publicly support the airport by utilizing it first. But, as with COVID-19, a wrench waited in the wings. Fly EVV First’s Thanksgiving reveal was deflated when American Airlines announced in March that it was suspending daily service to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. United Airlines’ Chicago service already was scheduled to end in early January 2022, leaving EVV with no direct service to the Windy City. Then, Delta’s service to Detroit also was suspended in March. Tri-State residents now had no direct air connection to a northern city.
This introduced a problem for Fly EVV First partner companies such as Old National Bank, whose merger with Chicago-based First Midwest Bank was announced in June 2021. Daily air service to Chicago ended mere weeks after the deal was completed in February 2022. As Old National Bank personnel and executives have traveled north to train their new employees, they’ve been forced to choose between taking a multi-hour, two-stop trip costing upward of $700; driving to a well-connected regional airport, such as in Louisville, Kentucky, Indianapolis, Indiana or Nashville, Tennessee; or making the nearly 300-mile trek north by car.
“We’ve had to utilize going to maybe Louisville, or other airports, to travel, or driving,” says Old National Bank Chief Communications, Culture, and Social Responsibility Officer Kathy Schoettlin. “We know that Evansville Regional Airport is doing everything in their power to get this service reinstated.”
E-REP also is keeping tabs on the economic impact of reduced northern service.
“What we’re trying to do is be available to bring back our connections to Chicago and Detroit to all of our businesses that need those flights to Chicago for meetings and networking and managing our markets up there, and for our auto community who has flights back and forth to Detroit every day. So, due to this pause, they’ve had to drive and use other ineffective modes of transportation,” Barney says. “It is a problem, and we want to address it quickly, but it isn’t bringing our airport to its knees like in other cities.”
Part of that lies with EVV’s healthy spate of service. As of press time, American and Delta continue thrice-daily flights to Dallas-Fort Worth, Charlotte, and Atlanta each, and Allegiant links EVV to the sunny skies over Destin and Orlando, Florida.
Flying into the Future
As EVV moves further away from the pandemic, it’s starting to recover lost traffic and rack up accolades. In 2021, the Great Lakes Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives named EVV’s solar panel parking canopies its “Commercial Airport Architectural Project of the Year” for generating enough energy to supply half of the terminal’s power. Allegiant and American Airlines have increased passenger capacity through larger aircraft and more flights. And travelers are responding: 2021 saw a nearly 60 percent improvement from 2020’s dismal passenger count, and topped out at 80 percent recovery compared to 2019’s strong summer passenger count.
Meanwhile, Hahn says EVV officials continue meeting with airlines to secure new routes and reestablish service to hubs such as Chicago, and ultimately, he adds, the best way to get service back is for the community to choose EVV.
“We are definitely excited to see that (Chicago) flight schedule reinstated. It’s absolutely the most convenient means of transportation for our team members,” Shoettlin says. “We use it on almost a weekly basis, especially with one of our largest markets now being Chicago.”
Industry issues continue to resonant at EVV, including airline staffing shortages.
“The temporary challenge we have right now with some of the flights is going on all over the country. Even though it’s a problem, our airport is well enough run and used by enough businesses that we’re in good shape,” Barney says. “We will rebuild.”
To encourage a new generation of pilots, EVV is throwing its support behind Hoosier flight programs such as at Vincennes University, Indiana State University, and Purdue University, Hahn’s alma mater. In the meantime, Evansville Regional Airport is expanding its already full parking lots to include more spots and popular canopies, ready to welcome an increase in passengers as more of a pandemic-weary public embraces travel.
“Our local government, business community, and airport are all working together to make sure we are at the front of the line to return these services,” Barney says. “Because we already had a high-functioning airport, we’re going to get through this better than others.”
“Our future is growth. I’m not saying we’ll grow tomorrow, but we are preparing,” Hahn says. “We remain optimistic and work to ensure that when our growth trajectory returns, EVV is ready to take flight.”
Evansville Regional Airport