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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington region’s airports are reeling from impact of coronavirus pandemic

The pandemic is expected to cost U.S. airports at least $23.3 billion in lost revenue in 2020, according to an estimate.
The pandemic is expected to cost U.S. airports at least $23.3 billion in lost revenue in 2020, according to an estimate. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The presentation to the board that runs Dulles International and Reagan National airports was a grim summary of an average travel day in May vs. a year ago: Takeoffs and landings down 75 percent. Concessions sales down 90 percent. Passengers screened by the TSA down 95 percent. Parking revenue down 97 percent.

The list went on, each figure another sobering reminder of the economic impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the nation’s airports.

“Oh how quickly things have changed,” said A. Bradley Mims, a member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board, after chief executive Jack Potter concluded the report.

Indeed. Not long ago, MWAA officials were in a celebratory mood. Passenger traffic at both airports was booming. National was in the midst of a $1 billion building program that would add new security checkpoints and a concourse with 14 new gates. After years of floundering, Dulles had finally found its footing and was expanding its international offerings with new nonstop flights to Hong Kong and Tel Aviv.

Even with reports of growing outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, air traffic remained relatively stable at the two airports. In January, passenger traffic was up 8.7 percent over the previous year (though airport officials noted that some of that growth may have been partly attributable to the bad weather and the government shutdown in January 2019). And this past February, despite the Trump administration’s ban on travel from China and Iran, Dulles and National posted 6.1 percent growth in passenger traffic.

Just a month later, however, after the Trump administration restricted travel from 26 European nations, the bottom began to drop out as airlines moved to ground virtually all of their international flights. Domestic air traffic also took a hit as states issued stay-at-home orders and urged people not to travel.

In March, the most recent month for which statistics are available, passenger volume dropped by more than half at both Dulles and National, compared with the same period in 2019. Roughly 456,000 passengers flew through National in March, down from just over 1 million in 2019 — a 56.5 percent drop. Passenger traffic at Dulles dropped by more than a million to 928,709 — less than half of what it was last March. The biggest decline at both airports came among international travelers. It’s a pattern that has played out at airports across the country.

Flights and passenger numbers matter because airports depend heavily on airlines and concessions to fund their operations. At Reagan and Dulles, for example, revenue from concessions such as restaurants, shops, rental cars and parking makes up more than half their revenue.

Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, the region’s busiest, also has seen a dramatic reversal in its fortunes. In April, revenue from concessions was down 95.4 percent. The number of trips from taxis and ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft was down nearly 95 percent compared with last year.

Like Dulles and National, BWI also saw traffic begin to drop in March, when the number of passengers decreased by more than 1 million compared with last year, or 52.6 percent, according to spokesman Jonathan Dean.

Southwest Airlines, which operates more than 60 percent of the commercial flights at BWI, flew just over 669,000 passengers in March — compared with more than 1.4 million in March 2019. That’s a nearly 53 percent decrease.

“Mid-March is when we began to see a lot of the restrictions around the country,” said Ricky Smith, BWI’s executive director. “The public became really sensitized to the issue of the pandemic.”

Still, BWI has fared better than other airports in part because Southwest has cut fewer flights than many of its competitors. For BWI, that has meant more seats available for those people who are flying. Last May, BWI ranked 22nd among U.S. airports for available seats. This May, the airport ranked 12th.

In a report to the board earlier this month, the MWAA’s Potter said airports face a difficult future.

“Many experts predict the financial fallout from this pandemic will last through next year and likely well beyond for segments of the economy including air travel,” Potter said. “The recovery is expected to be long and slow.”

According to preliminary estimates by Airports Council International-North America, the pandemic is expected to cost U.S. airports at least $23.3 billion in lost revenue in 2020.

According to Andrew Rountree, the MWAA’s chief financial officer, revenue from aviation sources was $170.1 million for the first three months of the year, 8.8 percent lower than in the same period last year. Income from non-airline sources also was down, by 6.6 percent.

Some of that lost revenue may be offset by $10 billion in funding that airports will receive from the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package known as the Cares Act.

Dulles and National will receive more than $229 million, while BWI will receive roughly $87.6 million.

Potter said the authority is still trying to determine how to use the money. However, as a condition of receiving the funds, airports must agree to keep at least 90 percent of their employees on the job through the end of 2020.

Still, Potter said, airports are asking for additional federal support.

In prepared testimony for a May 6 hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Todd Hauptli, president and chief executive of the American Association of Airport Executives, said airports would need at least $10 billion more, plus additional money to help smaller general-aviation airports and other airport partners.

The GAO told the government in 2015 to develop a plan to protect the aviation system against an outbreak. It never happened.

However, both Potter and Smith said they were confident their airports would get through this crisis.

Potter said one bright spot is that construction projects, including the new concourse and security screening area at National, continue to move forward and remain on schedule.

The same holds true at BWI, where officials are close to completing a project to add 55,000 square feet to Terminal A. The expansion, which will include five new gates, new restrooms and restaurants, is on track and expected to be completed this summer.

Right now, it’s about managing operations and putting the right safety measures in place to ensure that when travelers are ready to return, the airport is ready for them, Smith said.

Potter echoed that sentiment.

“Everyone across the authority is working to make sure we are running our business in the most cost-effective way possible,” he said.

All three airports, however, are spending additional money to add plexiglass barriers and hand-sanitizing stations and have stepped up cleaning and installed decals to help with social distancing. The cost of those efforts and who ultimately will pay for them is not clear.

BWI’s Smith said that in recent days, there have been small signs of a turnaround. As more states inch toward reopening, passenger numbers have slowly increased.

Even so, he’s not necessarily eager to see big crowds return to BWI — yet.

“We’d love to have people flying out of BWI Marshall, but only if they can fly safely,” he said. “We don’t want you to fly unless you have to fly.”

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