Passengers are slowly starting to return to the Rochester International Airport, though the terminal is still much quieter than pre-pandemic days, before the number of passengers plummeted 96% in April and 91% in May.

The majority of the passengers waiting to board a Delta Airlines plane on Wednesday afternoon were people who had flown to Rochester for treatment at Mayo Clinic, which is again open for most types of care.

Larry Skutnick, of Kalamazoo, Mich., who was waiting to go through security, had arrived in Rochester on Saturday for tests at Mayo Clinic.

“It was a little hard to get here,” he said.

Skutnick did say the experience was better than he expected and he was impressed by the cleanliness of the planes and terminals he encountered. The odd part was walking through places like the usually crowded Detroit Metropolitan Airport to find it almost deserted.

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“It was almost surreal.” he added.

Airport Director John Reed said Rochester has fared like the rest of the country, which had just 417,924 passengers flying nationally on Wednesday. That’s down from 2.66 million on the same day last year.

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A plane awaits passengers at the Rochester International Airport on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
A plane awaits passengers at the Rochester International Airport on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Rochester does still have what has always made it different — Mayo Clinic. Despite the challenges of traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic, people still are flying here.

“These are the people who really need to travel,” he said. “But for us, the mission is still the same. We’re the critical entry point for these patients.”

Mayo Clinic founded Rochester’s first airport in 1928. While the City of Rochester owns the airport, Mayo Clinic is contracted to manage it through its Rochester Airport Co. firm.

Like Mayo Clinic, the airport started the year at a record pace, with 28,828 passengers in January and 27,892 in February, up 5% and 17% when compared to the same months in 2019, respectively.

Then the smooth flight hit turbulence, dropping to 16,315 passengers in March and just 1,121 passengers in April. That’s a 96% decrease from April 2019. Reed points out that on one day in April, the entire country had only 87,000 people in the air, compared to 2.6 million or more passengers on a typical day in U.S. airports.

Even as things start to reopen, the Rochester airport is seeing three flights a day, with about 60 to 100 passengers a day, compared to 12 flights, with about 500 a day.

“It’s pretty muted,” Reed said.

John Reed, Executive Director Rochester Airport Company, poses for a portrait on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, at the airport in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
John Reed, Executive Director Rochester Airport Company, poses for a portrait on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, at the airport in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

While more people are expected to come back to Rochester and Mayo Clinic in July, they won’t be able to fly in or out on United Airlines.

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, United Airlines was given the option to temporarily suspend service to 5% of its airports. Rochester was one of 11 chosen.

While the Department of Transportation ruled that United Airlines could halt flights from July 6 through Sept. 30, the airline is selling tickets for flights in August and September for now. Reed is optimistic the United flights won’t be disrupted for more than the month of July.

Despite the overall changes, Rochester International Airport still has fans, due to how much quicker and easier it is to navigate for passengers than major hubs, like Minneapolis.

Dr. Andy Muchmore, waiting to board a flight Wednesday, has been flying from Washington, D.C., to Med City for 13 years, and it has made quite an impression on him.

“I’ve flown all over, and my two favorite U.S. airports are Rochester International and Burlington International in Vermont. They are great,” he said.