Passenger volume at Logan International Airport is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels for at least another two years, and the recovery process could take six years under a worst-case scenario, Massachusetts Port Authority officials said Thursday.
Both air and maritime travel have dropped significantly amid the COVID-19 outbreak. While Massport leaders see rebounds on the horizon, they cautioned during a board meeting that outlooks remain uncertain and that the virus will cause lasting impacts — including a $28 million shortfall in the agency's budget.
Logan only transported about one-tenth as many passengers in May 2020 as in May 2019, according to figures presented by Massport Aviation Director Ed Freni. Total trips in April and May, Freni said, were "dismal" with volumes at "rock bottom."
There are signs of progress: the week ending June 8 saw 53% more passengers than the week before, and airlines have started to schedule more flights with a bigger uptick expected in mid-July, Freni said.
"We're really encouraged by that, but we're not sure how this is going to play out," he said. "The airlines really can't share information beyond July. Bookings have changed. People are booking on short notice. There's still a tremendous no-show factor, so it's very difficult to predict what's going to happen."
A key factor will be traveler behavior. Regardless of flight availability, many may not feel comfortable boarding planes for business or leisure with the threat of the highly infectious virus still lurking.
The most likely outcome Massport projects for the fiscal year 2021 is slightly more than half as many passengers as the fiscal year 2019 and full recovery that does not begin until the summer of 2022 at the earliest. A worst-case scenario Freni presented would see only 31% of fiscal 19 passenger volume in the upcoming fiscal year and a recovery period lasting three to six years.
Massport CEO Lisa Wieland said the airport typically hosts 600 flights per day this time of year, but that figure dropped to 100 at the depth of the pandemic.
Both she and Freni noted, though, that expectations can change rapidly. During Thursday's meeting, for example, Southwest announced it would run more flights out of Boston in August.
"Towards the end of May, heading into June, the numbers are starting to pick up, and by July, we're hoping to be picking up toward about 300 arrivals a day," Wieland said. "So that is some good news, although clearly we have a long way to go to get back to the levels that we were seeing pre-COVID."
A secondary effect of depressed travel is a much lower demand for transportation to and from the airport. The 14,000-spot central parking garage has hosted an average of only 1,200 cars per day recently, Freni said, and Massport scaled back some shuttle services.
"I know these numbers are discouraging for Massport," Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said during the meeting. "The silver lining is the reports we're getting on traffic in the tunnels, where people who are using them are pretty happy compared to where they were a year ago."
Massport officials expect a similar trend to hit the maritime side of the agency.
More on the Coronavirus
The Flynn Cruiseport may not host any more departing cruises — a form of travel that experienced major COVID outbreaks earlier in the pandemic — for the rest of the year. Only 11 are still scheduled in 2020, and Massport Maritime Director Michael Meyran said he believes the "probability is on the higher end" that they will ultimately cancel.
In 2021, cruises will likely run with less frequency than pre-pandemic estimates, Meyran said.
Like Freni, Meyran said he is encouraged by some signs of renewed activity but cautioned that "it's really difficult to forecast what's going to happen" for passenger ships.
Shipping has also been affected but to a lesser degree. Year-to-date imports to the Conley Terminal are down only 2%, less than many other major areas. Exports dropped by a larger 13%.
Massport's outlook for marine shipping containers also forecasts that a rebound will not come immediately. The most likely outcome, in which recovery follows a similar path as the wake of the Great Recession, will see about 75% as much volume as fiscal year 2019.
That could drop as low as 60% under a worst-case scenario in which a second wave of COVID infections hits the region and there is little consumer demand during the holiday season.
Amid the decline in business, Massport faces a budget crunch. Wieland said the current estimate is the authority will end the fiscal year 2020 with a $28 million shortfall, slightly better than the $31 million projected last month after bringing in more revenues than expected in April.
Massport already received $19 million of the $143.6 million that will come to it in federal stimulus funding through the CARES Act, which Wieland said will help close the gap.
"Because of our prolonged road to recovery, we plan to take a pretty conservative approach on our budget planning," she said.