Airline passenger traffic is still running far below pre-pandemic numbers, but airlines and airports are getting ready for what promises to be a busy summer.
Vaccinated travelers will be flying to more places — including Europe, once the European Commission releases further travel guidelines for Americans inoculated with one of Europe's approved vaccines.
More people in airport terminals means more customers for airport shops and restaurants still reeling from pandemic traumas.
“During the pandemic, many restaurants and stores had to be closed, while other were drastically scaled back to minimal hours,” said Rob Wigington, executive director of Airport Restaurant and Retail Association, an industry trade group. With the return of travelers, many airport concessions are reopening, but ARRA projects these businesses will show a loss of at least $3.4 billion between summer 2020 and the end of 2021.
When travelers do return to airports, they will notice changes in retail operations, ranging from shops permanently or temporarily shuttered to stores with reduced hours and limited stock.
At Denver International Airport, which has already seen a major return to traffic, “Our retail program is doing very well, and concessions are fully open,” airport spokeswoman Alex Renteria told NBC News, although many shops are currently operating with reduced hours.
While many local brands are maintaining their presence at Oregon’s Portland International Airport, the airport lost iconic, longtime local tenants Powell’s Books and The Real Mother Goose art and craft gallery during the pandemic.
"Concessionaires continue to adjust their operating hours so that they are open with the majority of the outbound flights,” airport spokeswoman Kama Simonds said.
After all but shutting down its airport stores in the first phase of the pandemic, Philadelphia International Airport came up with a strategic plan for how and when to reopen its 185 retail, food, and beverage outlets. Around 40 percent of those concessions are local and minority-owned businesses, said Jim Tyrell, the airport's chief revenue officer. “If we closed them, they’d have a harder time coming back.” So, as travel demand began to pick up, PHL focused on opening those businesses first.
“Travelers who are shopping are buying high-ticket, luxury items — things you wouldn't expect pandemic passengers to buy. It’s like you have people who have decided to travel and now they are all in.”
Today, 85 outlets are open, although many are operating with reduced hours due to worker shortages and limited airline schedules.
Not only has the airport "not lost a single operator since the pandemic started,” but shoppers are embracing airport shopping more than ever, Tyrell said.
“We’re noticing that travelers who are shopping are buying high-ticket, luxury items, including jewelry, high-end handbags, sunglasses, and wallets. Things we wouldn’t expect pandemic passengers to buy,” Tyrell said. “It’s like you have people who have decided to travel and now they are all in. We hope that trend continues.”
Traveler Roz Sobel, who lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, was excited to return to travel and to do some shopping at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport before her recent flight home. “Every time I go through I stop in and buy another pair of travel underwear at the ExOfficio store,” Sobel said. “They’re sort of expensive, but it’s a treat. This time I also stopped in the Hudson store and bought a nice, branded face mask.”
At Los Angeles International Airport, no local retail shops have permanently closed, said airport spokesman Heath Montgomery. With the number of international flights still down, only one duty-free shop is open.
"Sales are mirroring the slow rebound of international passengers,” Montgomery said.
“In general it has been a very difficult time for duty-free operators,” with sales down by as much as 80 percent, said Michael Payne, president and CEO of the International Association of Airport Duty Free Stores. A recent reopening and expansion of the duty-free store at Fort Lauderdale International Airport in Florida has been an exception, he said.
In the few U.S. airports where duty-free shops are open, there is uncertainty for travelers, Payne said.
“They’re flying for the first time in a year. They are in a rush to get to the gate. And they are more careful when shopping. Some things that they would touch, feel, taste, or try on, such as clothing, spirits, and cosmetics, they cannot do. And that changes the buying practice,” Payne said.
Business travelers, a traditionally good source of revenue for duty free, are not flying yet either. “But I think things will eventually settle down and should get back to something normal,” Payne predicted.
Wigington agreed, saying: “The industry will be in recovery mode for a long time, but with the continued help of our airport partners, and resumption of business and international travel, we will get to the other side of this unprecedented crisis.”