Nonstop flights to cities cut at the start of the pandemic more than two years ago have mostly returned at Chattanooga Airport, except to New York City.
But airport officials said last week that Delta Air Lines continues to tell them the nonstops will resume when business traffic does to that key destination.
"Once COVID happened, it was one of the routes that was cut," Terry Hart, the airport's chief executive, said in an interview.
Hart said in 2021 that the nonstops between Chattanooga and LaGuardia Airport in New York City might return that September, but that didn't occur as business traffic nationally has been slower to come back than leisure travel.
Last week, he said, Delta continues to maintain it plans to bring back the New York nonstops when business travel gets back to more typical loads for the airline.
"We're not there yet," Hart said. "In our discussions, we've had two of them, they said service will return. It was one of the routes that did well."
Chattanooga has nonstops to Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit, Miami, Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Washington, D.C.
Air traffic worldwide was hammered during the coronavirus lockdowns in 2020. Chattanooga Airport experienced its worst year in 2020 for boardings since 1983. That ended six consecutive years of record growth in air traffic at the airport.
Also in 2020, for the first time Chattanooga officials could recall, American Airlines was the top carrier of passengers at Lovell Field, flying past perennial frontrunner Delta.
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said in an interview last week that direct flights to destinations are needed from the airport. A lot of people who live in the Chattanooga market drive to other airports to fly, he said, and it's important to have them traveling from Lovell Field.
"We want to keep them flying out of here," Kelly said.
He touted the airport's official start last week of its $28 million terminal expansion that will add gates for planes, boost amenities for passengers and increase the size of the security checkpoint for travelers.
Jermaine Freeman, the city's economic development officer, said the efficiency and convenience of nonstop flights can be "game-changing for our economic development prospects."
"When we're recruiting prospective companies to create jobs in Chattanooga by opening additional offices and facilities here, they will consider whether or not travel and access to our city is easy and efficient," he said in an email. "The addition of more destinations served via nonstop flights is an essential and critical part of the economic development and success of our city."
Freeman also said tourists looking for weekend getaways want to travel to places they can reach quickly.
"The more flights, stopovers and connections that people make, the greater the chances they will experience delays, cancellations and disruptions to their itineraries and schedules," he said.
While Delta and other airlines have put more planes into the sky as the pandemic has eased, the total number of flights between Chattanooga and other cities haven't fully come back.
For example, Delta had offered upwards of 11 daily nonstop flights between Chattanooga and Atlanta before the pandemic, but the number is about half that now.
Also, it may be a while before the total number of flights come back because of a pilot shortage at all the airlines and other staffing shortages nationally, according to Hart.
"Seat capacity has not been growing," he said.
Hart said Chattanooga passenger boardings are at about 80% of where the figure was before the pandemic.
"We continue to see a rebound," he said about the long-term outlook for the future.