How US airports continue to recover from the pandemic

Benét J. Wilson – Nov 2, 2021
It’s not an understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated airport finances, which (in turn) has severely affected the passenger experience.  But the current state of airports can’t be blamed on the pandemic alone. “Airport infrastructure suffered from chronic underfunding even before this steep decline in air travelers,” according to a report (warning: PDF link) issued in March 2021 by the Airports Council International-North America, which represents airports in the U.S. and Canada.

This underfunding has led to airports prioritizing smaller, more immediate projects — like the maintenance of aging systems and infrastructure — over making investments in larger, higher-impact projects that would modernize and increase airport capacity. It has also led to a $115 billion backlog of planned infrastructure projects and tens of billions of dollars more in delayed or canceled projects, according to the report.

According to Kevin Burke, president and CEO of ACI-NA, the industry wouldn’t have survived without the $20 billion included for airports in the CARES Act, passed in March 2020. Airports must make bond payments every year to cover construction and improvement costs, something that the decrease in air traffic made tougher to do, he said.  “Without a flow of traffic — we were down to 89,000 people passing through TSA checkpoints in April 2020 — we realized that we needed help from the federal government,” Burke said. “We ended up doing a full-out lobbying campaign with Congress to talk about how important airports were for the recovery of the economy.”

The $20 billion kept the airports open, kept employees working and ensured that bills were paid, said Burke. “The $20 billion was a godsend to us, but we’re still struggling. We’re not anywhere close to where we were before in 2019 in terms of our passenger numbers, but it is getting better,” he said.

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Terry Pawelko