Before the pandemic, airports needed $ 115 billion in infrastructure repairs. Then travel dried up and income collapsed.
When low-cost airline Avelo Airlines launched the first of 11 new small-town and secondary airport routes from the 14-gate Hollywood Burbank Airport in April, it raised the profile of the airport. as an alternative to Los Angeles International – and shed light on its outdated facilities.
“The existing terminal is too close to runways and taxiways – and the building is now 91 years old,” Frank Miller, executive director of the airport, told NBC News. A plan to replace the terminal suspended due to Covid-19 is back, but funding sources for it – and for other airport infrastructure projects across the country – are “simply inadequate,” Miller said .
Even before the pandemic and the sharp decline in air travel, “chronic underfunding” created a backlog of more than $ 115 billion in infrastructure needs for the next five years alone, according to a recent study by the United States. ‘Airports Council International – North America (ACI- N / A).
“We are trying to build 21st century airports,” said Kevin Burke, President and CEO of ACI-NA. “But we have 20th century airports that are, on average, over 40 years old. “
This is why airports continue to push for an increase in one of the main infrastructure funding mechanisms underway for airports – the federally capped user fees on tickets, known as fees. passenger installation. It was last increased from $ 3 to $ 4.50 about 20 years ago. Now all eyes are on the $ 25 billion airports item in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, which is currently being worked out in Washington, DC.
The proposal includes $ 10 billion to complete the airport improvement program, $ 10 billion to redevelop terminals and intermodal transportation connections, and $ 5 billion to replace and upgrade Federal Aviation Administration equipment. .
The ACI-NA study indicates that instead of investing in large, high-impact projects to upgrade facilities and increase capacity, “airports were forced to prioritize smaller immediate needs, such as the maintenance of aging structures and systems ”. It has meant “tens of billions of dollars in additional projects that have been delayed or canceled due to the pandemic and economic recession,” according to the report.
In 2020, Raleigh-Durham International Airport postponed $ 96 million in construction projects. In April 2020, San Francisco International Airport announced the postponement of a $ 1 billion renovation project for Terminal 3 West, where United Airlines operates. This project is still on hold, airport spokesman Doug Yakel told NBC News, adding that “we will revisit the schedule for this project later this year.”
During the pandemic, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport put its $ 3 billion 24-gate F Terminal project on hold, but continued with other major projects, including the accelerated reconstruction of an arrival runway. , the opening of the four-door terminal D. Southern extension of the international terminal and construction of a new operations center.
“We kept the work going because it was important for the airport,” said DFW CEO Sean Donohue. “But the projects were also important for the region. At the height of all this work, it created 4,000 construction jobs. “
Los Angeles International Airport, Portland International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and Kansas City International Airport have all advanced major construction work during the pandemic – in some cases completing projects ahead of schedule and with cost savings, thanks to reduced traffic in and around terminals.
Airports will lose at least $ 40 billion until March 2022 – and even more if passenger traffic remains depressed.
Pittsburgh International Airport, which put its $ 1.1 billion terminal project on hold in April 2020 due to the pandemic, was able to restart that project in February this year.
“The pandemic has really highlighted the need for our terminal modernization project,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the airport. “We will be the country’s first airport built from the ground up in a post-pandemic world and this has given us the chance to include public health as a key part of the design.”
Despite the summer surge in travel, passenger traffic and the revenues it brings to airports are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023. ACI-NA estimates that airports will lose at least $ 40 billion by the day. in March 2022 – and even more if passenger traffic remains depressed. This makes the financing of airport infrastructure projects even more crucial.
“The reality is that as things get back to normal and a certain level of funding is agreed upon, you will see a lot more cranes and a lot more work that will benefit everyone,” Burke said. “This includes communities, airports, trades and, of course, passengers.”