Air travel at Dubuque Regional Airport rebounded in 2013, with more than 32,000 passengers taking to the skies.
According to unofficial enplanement data, 32,216 passengers boarded flights out of Dubuque last year, up about 3.65 percent from 2012. Results were buoyed by a strong finish to the year, with monthly double-digit percentage gains year-over-year from September through November.
Airport Manager Robert Grierson is quick to point out the data remain unofficial until a formal audit by the Federal Aviation Administration in the spring. But he said the figures appear to show positive trends.
Passengers increased by 7.83 percent in December, "even in spite of all the terrible weather we had," Grierson said.
"There were systemwide cancellations," he said. "Our numbers were showing a substantial increase."
The figures show a bounce back from 2012, when the number of passengers flying out of Dubuque declined by nearly 11 percent from the previous year. In contrast to 2013, the tail end of 2012 saw the number of passengers plummet.
Positive trends bode well not only for the airport but for the economy in general, Grierson said.
"Air travel is the bellwether, the harbinger of the economy," he said. "We usually see the effect of a growing economy or a declining economy first. (The) first thing that's always cut is the travel budget."
There is room for growth, according to Grierson. Passenger counts show that the airport is essentially functioning "at capacity."
Grierson said he hopes American Airlines and American Eagle, the airline's regional carrier, find room for a fourth daily flight out of the airport. Though another daily flight to Chicago would be appreciated, a connection to Dallas could prove more beneficial to the business community, he said.
"That's what the business community has been telling us for years," he said. "They want to see a fourth flight to Dallas. It opens up the Southwest."
The decision to merge American Airlines and U.S. Airways, announced in February, represents another intriguing possibility for local businesses, according to Molly Grover, president and CEO of Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism.
"A merger could possibly mean other hubs. It could mean more flights. It could mean a host of things," she said. "We don't know exactly what the merger holds for Dubuque, but we know new opportunities could be a result."
Chamber officials are working to schedule a conversation with airline leaders to discuss expanded services locally, Grover said.
Besides passenger growth, Grierson said 2013 was positive in other ways. Elected officials successfully fought against the closure of the airport's air traffic control tower by the FAA, and a new $39 million terminal project, set for a 2016 opening, continued to take shape.
Grierson and other officials will work with American Airlines to bring new services to the area, he said.
"American (Airlines) has not said what they want out of Dubuque," Grierson said. "What they have said is they are profitable, they like Dubuque, they plan to stay in Dubuque. Those are good things. Now, how do we get them to take the next step?"