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Airports face financial impact from coronavirus pandemic

HOUSTON – Booking a trip right now doesn’t sound very tempting for most.

“It takes the excitement out of traveling because you don’t have anyone here anymore,” said Kevin Kerlish, a passenger flying out of William P. Hobby Airport back home to Orlando.

Coronavirus has transformed Houston airports into ghost towns.

Just two months ago, the Houston Airport System touted a record year with 59 million passengers moving through George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport in 2019. The passenger count contributed a combined $33.1 billion to the economy.

2020 will be much different says Houston City Council Member Dave Martin.

“There is nobody traveling and no one is going to jump on a plane effective June 1st of this year,” Martin said.

On Friday, multi-million dollar aircraft were parked at IAH as if they were on a used car lot. Outside the airport or inside of it, the loss of revenue was evident.

Airport operations rely on passenger facility charges, better known as a PFC. Every time a Houston-area passenger books a flight through one of the Houston airports, $4.50 of the ticket price goes back to the airport system. Those fees help airport operations — including the funding of projects.

Martin has been a critic of IAH in the past. At a November 2018 city council meeting he said, “We have a piece of junk airport right now, it’s a dump, intercontinental.”

He said the airport was behind the times. But, he now wonders about its future.

“I don’t know if anyone has the ability to predict what airline traffic is going to look like in 2021," he said Friday.

For years, passengers have been helping to pay the bill on the massive International Terminal Redevelopment Project at IAH known as ITRP. It is a project the city’s controller, Chris Brown, questioned last summer.

Announced in 2014, the original price tag for the project was between $700 to $900 million.

Six years later, there is still no terminal. New changes brought a new price tag — $1.2 billion.

“If projects need to be delayed, deferred, depending on how long we’re in this crisis state then I’m sure these projects will take place,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said of ITRP Wednesday.

One thing in the airport’s favor is that it operates off the enterprise fund. The dollars are completely separate from the city’s general fund.

“Let me say the airport system has done a pretty good job establishing a meaningful reserve, I believe it’s $500 million,” Turner said.

On March 17, KPRC 2 was provided with an email from a high ranking city official showing numerous airport projects were being deferred or canceled.

This all changed after Congress passed the CARES ACT according to Houston Aviation Director Mario C. Diaz who in an email to KPRC 2 said “no projects are being deferred at this moment."

Turner says the industry will soar again.

“We all know the airlines are going to benefit significantly from the stimulus package and at some point in time we’re going to get back to normal operations and we’ll start to ramp back up," he said.

The only question is when?