The travel industry still has a long way to recover from the sudden and sustained drop in air travel resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Passenger traffic continues to climb, but it remains a fraction of its pre-pandemic levels. Nearly 2.3 million people passed through airport security over Labor Day weekend this year, about 4 million fewer than last year.
This prolonged downturn threatens to undermine a significant number of the 2.7 million people who work at airports around the country. That is why our industry needs another lifeline from Congress to protect these jobs and to ensure the seamless operation of an essential piece of America’s critical infrastructure.
The spread of COVID-19 brought travel around the world to a near standstill, and the slow recovery in commercial aviation continues to ripple across the global economy, undermining airport finances and the millions of jobs they support. This prolonged downturn, coupled with the uncertain prospects for a rebound, has created budget shortfalls for airports around the country, forcing many to delay critical infrastructure projects or consider staff cuts.
In the wake of the pandemic, passenger traffic decreased by 87 percent from April to June. Those numbers have improved somewhat but remain far from where they were last year. For example, last Wednesday, about 578,000 people passed through airport security. On the same day last year, the Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.1 million travelers.
This ongoing drop in commercial air travel has upended airport finances. Back in April, we estimated that airports would lose at least $23 billion through March 2021 because of the pandemic. That number could rise significantly, if travel volumes remain low. While the passage of designated funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in March helped to keep travel operational at the start of the pandemic, our industry is far from recovery and airports’ finances are being stretched to a breaking point.
Based on research conducted by Airports Council International – North America, 90 percent of nonaeronautical revenue is passenger-dependent. Much of the operating costs and generated revenue to airports comes from leases, parking, concessions, and other fees. The financial impact those partnerships have on the local economies is immense. In 2019, the Philadelphia International Airport generated $16.8 billion for their regional economy and supported 106,800 jobs with $5.4 billion in earnings. But the economic impact of COVID-19 is threatening that foundational economic ecosystem.
Due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, San Francisco International Airport announced the delay of a $1 billion renovation in its United Terminal 3 that was set to start in June, greatly impacting the economic stability of local contract work. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was forced to cut $20 million from its budget leaving a rippling effect impacting workers in various positions throughout the industry. Recently, Tampa International Airport, which experienced a more than 40 percent drop in passenger traffic, announced a need to cut $2.5 million from its personnel budget. Other airports, including Philadelphia International, have warned about “substantial” layoffs without another round of relief funds.
In total, 2.7 million people work at airports around the United States, including airport employees, airline workers, and others who operate businesses within or connected to the airports. These frontline workers have played a critical role in ensuring essential operations continue in the midst of uncertainty. But if the situation does not improve, airports will be forced to shrink down its direct workforce and contract staff and further delay essential infrastructure projects, which will negatively impact local economies.
Government inaction at this time of crisis is unacceptable and will only further damage the pathway to recovery for this essential industry. Labor leaders recently signed onto a letter to congressional leadership urging action to help us ensure our airport workers, and others, continue receiving their hard-earned paychecks. Passing an economic relief package will not only support essential travel industry workers, but it will also help to save the local economies that airports support.
Our world is at a time of crisis, with many people suffering from the impact of COVID-19 and the economic impact of the shutdowns. As airports around the country continue doing everything we can to ensure travel continues safely for the public, our government must do everything it can to ensure this essential service is able to recover from our losses and support our frontline workers.
Kevin M. Burke is the president and CEO of Airports Council International – North America.
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