A Southwest passenger jet sits at a terminal at Portland International Jetport in this 2014 file photo. Credit: Seth Koenig / BDN

With passenger volume down 50 percent so far this year compared with pre-pandemic levels, the Portland International Jetport is launching a $100,000 marketing campaign to attract travelers.

The “Maine’s Home Airport” campaign aims to bring back the strong growth Maine’s largest airport had before the pandemic, Zach Sundquist, assistant airport director, said in a video update to business leaders Monday. The Jetport will advertise on TV, radio and some digital platforms while the Maine Office of Tourism will collaborate on digital platforms.

Before the pandemic, the Jetport saw a steady increase in passenger travel, which rose 30 percent from 2014 to 2019 to hit nearly 2.2 million, largely fueled by Portland’s reputation as a dining and tourism destination, Sundquist said. He expected the growth to continue, but the pandemic led travel numbers to plummet below 793,000 in 2020.

So far this year, passenger travel is half what it was in 2019. At the same time, the number of seats this year is down 45 percent from 2019, as air carriers blocked some from being sold for social-distancing purposes.

The all-time low for the airport during the pandemic was on April 14, 2020, when businesses were closed and passenger volume was down 97.32 percent from 2019. Traffic grew slowly from last August through Christmas, when it spiked, he said. On April 16 of this year, passenger travel was up 19.2 percent from 2019.

“That was leading into school vacation week and everybody was getting out of Maine after a long winter,” Sundquist said.

Daily traffic is down about 25 percent day-to-day now, but he expects that to return to 2019 numbers from Memorial Day weekend and into the first couple weeks of June.

“We’re starting to lay the cornerstones of recovery,” Sundquist said. “Over the next six months we hope to be right in line with our 2019 capacity.”

The airport has doubled its nonstop destinations to 30 over the last year, including White Plains, New York, and Minneapolis. It also is looking for new ways to attract travelers. Sundquist said with the new routes, the airport is drawing in some of the larger planes, which have more first-class seats. Those became popular during the pandemic because travelers could have more space between themselves and others, so the more expensive first-class seats often are sold out. This year the airport is seeing a 2 percent rise in sales of those seats.

Most of the anticipated rise in passengers this summer is leisure travel. It still isn’t clear how or when business travelers will return. If they don’t, it could cause the airline industry to scramble to attract more leisure travelers for winter excursions, Sundquist said.