Airport traffic, rental car rates plummet

Passenger numbers lie in single digits while rental bookings sit at ‘next to zero.’

The Martha's Vineyard Airport terminal building was eerily quiet during a visit to drop off a rental car on March 21. — Kate Feiffer

With so few people traveling to and from the Island, Martha’s Vineyard Airport and Hertz Car Rental services have both seen a drastic decrease in incoming flights and vehicle bookings.

Airport commission chair Bob Rosenbaum said traffic is “way down” from a general aviation standpoint. Cape Air is the only airline currently operating, but that is normal in the month of April. The big change, according to Rosenbaum, can be seen in the number of passengers coming off each plane. 

“There are usually only one or two people coming off each plane,” Rosenbaum said, and added that some flights that come in are Angel Flights from private aircraft. “The number of passengers we see every day is often in the single digits.”

With such low passenger numbers, and the main terminal and waiting area being largely restricted from access by the general public, Rosenbaum said there is very little opportunity for people to congregate, reducing the opportunity for infection to spread.

The Plane View restaurant was offering takeout meals for a time, but has since suspended operations entirely because of a lack of customers.

As far as airport staffing is concerned, Rosenbaum indicated that all employees that are able to are working from home.

Some essential functions of the airport cannot be maintained without workers being physically present, such as the wastewater facility and any operations staff that handle emergency response and fueling. 

“There has to be a licensed water and wastewater crew on duty at all times to keep the facility up and running,” Rosenbaum said.

Fire personnel and security staff remain on the premises, but are isolating themselves and only responding when necessary.

Any aircraft fueling is set up remotely, where pilots can request fueling over the phone, and a service employee will come out to fill up the plane.

In terms of the airport business park, Rosenbaum said there is some flexibility from the Federal Aviation Administration regarding leases and rental payments.

“We cannot go and forgive those payments, but we do have some flexibility by way of scheduling payments and creating payment plans for tenants,” Rosenbaum said. 

Tenants such as Fedex and Amerigas will not see a huge change in their businesses, according to Rosenbaum, whereas tenants like Big Sky Tent rental and Airport Fitness will be greatly affected by the economic downturn. 

He said he and the other commissioners and airport administration will be meeting with tenants to discuss overall policy impacts and plan for the future.

“We are well aware of all the pain this is causing us as an Island,” Rosenbaum said.

Recently, the Dukes County Commission, which serves as the regulatory body for airport-related spending, approved special legislation that would allow the airport to apply for up to $4 million in borrowed funds.

“We don’t even know if we are even going to need any of that, but it’s better to be proactive and not have to go through a year-long process with the state,” Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum said he has been in touch with Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, about shepherding the legislation through. 

Other businesses at the airport are also seeing a major decrease in traffic, and are expecting tough decisions regarding revenue and staffing during the summertime.

“Our rates have fallen dramatically,” John Cahill, owner of the Hertz service at the airport, said. 

This time of year, Cahill said renters normally consist of around 50 percent workers, and 50 percent off-Island visitors or part-time residents. “This time of year, it’s usually a lot of real estate agents and construction workers that need to get around,” Cahill said. But this time around, the amount of workers and seasonal residents renting cars has plummeted.

“We almost have next to zero bookings,” Cahill said. “Like most businesses on the Island, this has hit us very hard.”

Many folks that would normally be coming to the Vineyard to prepare their summer homes for move-in, according to Cahill, are staying put and not traveling here.

Cahill said once Memorial Day rolls around, his business and many other businesses, will have a better understanding of the overall impact on revenue, and how they will fare through the summer. 

“I don’t think we have any history on this. We can’t begin to understand the impact this will have,” Cahill said. “Like everything else during this time, these figures are very hard to predict.”

Hertz is taking a number of precautions to ensure the safety of their employees and their customers. 

Cahill said employees are thoroughly cleaning the vehicles themselves after each rental, especially the cars coming from off-Island that are rented for an extended period. At the rental counter, employees wipe down drivers licences and credit cards with disinfecting wipes, and wipe down the counter every hour.

Workers are also wearing gloves, and are washing their hands frequently, among other personal hygiene measures. 

As the number of confirmed cases grows, and the restrictions on travel and regular business are extended, Cahill said the status of the rental car business is in flux, and even the near future is uncertain.

“Typically we would have five to seven transactions per day, but right now it’s about five to seven times per week,” Cahill said. 

Hertz is, according to Cahill, planning on a 50 percent reduction in revenue from now through the summer, when car rentals rates are normally at their peak.

He said this means that to stay afloat, the company will have to manage labor costs, which could mean cutting down on staffing.

“We might go down to 10 or 15 employees this summer, or we might go down to five or six. At this point, it’s very hard to know,” Cahill said.

Hertz is currently offering a $20 per-day deal to Islanders who can provide an Island drivers license. He said this initiative is geared toward supporting healthcare workers and first responders. 

“That car would typically be about $60 or $70 per day. Any essential worker, medical personnel, or emergency worker, we want to help them in any way we can,” Cahill said.

Cahill mentioned an effort going on in New York City, where rental cars are being offered for free to frontline workers. 

“That has not been implemented here on Martha’s Vineyard, but if this thing gets dragged out too much longer, I anticipate that it will be,” Cahill said. “We all want to be safe and be done with this situation as quickly as we can.”