PHOENIX (3 On Your Side) - The lines at the security checkpoint at Sky Harbor International Airport are getting longer, passengers are reporting full flights, and the baggage carousel is busier as air travel rebounds for the summer season.
"The amount of pent-up demand for travel is unlike anything we've ever seen," said Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott's Cheap Flights.
To keep up with the increasing passenger demand, planes have to come out of storage. In early 2020, as COVID-19 infections began sweeping through the country, demand for flights plummeted nearly 90%, and airlines grounded large portions of their fleets. As the pandemic persisted, airlines turned to long-term storage programs, like the one operated by Ascent Aviation Services at the Pinal County Airpark. Scott Butler, the company's chief commercial officer, says that about 400 planes were in storage there at the height of the pandemic. Typically, the facility maxes out at about 100.
"We're getting aircraft in from six different continents," Butler said.
The FAA regulates airplane storage programs. One of the first steps in the storage process is to wrap the tires, the engine, the windows, and other components with mylar to helps protect against wildlife and dust, and maintenance on each plane is carefully tracked. For a plane that has been on the ground for the duration of the pandemic, Butler estimates it has undergone anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 hours of maintenance.
"These aircraft are millions and millions of dollars," he said. "You wouldn't even park your car out here unsupervised or uncovered."
So far, Ascent has reactivated dozens of planes for multiple operators.
"It could be as quick as one week to get the aircraft from storage into the air, but it could be as long as a month if certain operators have changed hands," Butler explained.
Recent TSA data shows a steady, increasing trend in the number of passengers. On Mother's Day, May 9, the agency screened more than 1.7 million people. It was the busiest day for TSA since the start of the pandemic. According to American Airlines, the company is expecting to fly more than 90% of its domestic seat capacity this summer, compared to summer 2019. United reported it is adding more than 480 daily flights to its domestic schedule.
"There's certainly a lot quicker rebound for domestic travel than international travel," Keyes said.
Summer is always an expensive time to travel, but Keyes anticipates more inexpensive fares than previous summers. Despite growing demand, air travel is still down 30%, Keyes said, adding that airlines have added capacity to routes faster than the demand requires. He also says airlines are shifting a lot of their capacity to popular vacation destinations.
"They're taking these wide-body planes which have a ton of seats on them and reorienting them toward where there is high demand for leisure travel," Keyes said.
That means more planes may continue to come out of storage.
"Bottom line," 3 On Your Side asked. "Is it safe to get back on one of these airplanes that hasn't been in the air for an entire year?"
"Absolutely, 100%," Butler said without hesitation.
Ascent added 200 jobs this year and is continuing to hire to get planes reactivated and also to begin storage programs for additional planes that are coming from other countries that aren't experiencing the same travel rebound that is happening in the U.S.