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Pre-pandemic, airports needed $115B in infrastructure fixes. Then travel dried up and revenues slumped.

“We’re trying to build 21st century airports. But we have 20th century airports that are, on average, more than 40 years old.”
Image: Avelo Airlines Boeing 737-800 prepares for boarding at Hollywood Burbank Airport on May 30, 2021.
Avelo Airlines Boeing 737-800 prepares for boarding at Hollywood Burbank Airport on May 30, 2021.AaronP / Bauer-Griffin via GC Images

When low-cost carrier Avelo Airlines launched the first of 11 new routes to small cities and secondary airports from 14-gate Hollywood Burbank Airport in April, it raised the airport’s profile as an alternative to Los Angeles International — and put a spotlight on the its outdated facilities.

“The existing terminal is too close to the runways and taxiways — and the building is now 91 years old,” Frank Miller, the airport's executive director, told NBC News. A terminal replacement plan put on hold due to Covid-19 is back on track, but funding sources for this — and for other airport infrastructure projects around 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 necessary infrastructure needs for just the next five years, according to a recent study from Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA).

“We’re trying to build 21st-century airports,” said Kevin Burke, ACI-NA’s president and chief executive officer. “But we have 20th-century airports that are, on average, more than 40 years old.”

That is why airports continue pushing for an increase to one of the main ongoing infrastructure funding mechanisms for airports — the federally capped user fee on tickets known as the Passenger Facility Charge. It was last raised from $3 to $4.50 around 20 years ago. Now, all eyes are on the $25 billion line item for airports in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, which is currently being hammered out in Washington, D.C.

The proposal includes $10 billion to supplement the Airport Improvement Program, $10 billion for terminal redevelopment and intermodal transit connections, and $5 billion to replace and modernize Federal Aviation Administration equipment.

ACI-NA’s study says that instead of investing in large, high-impact projects to modernize facilities and increase capacity, “airports have been forced to prioritize smaller, immediate needs like maintenance of aging structures and systems.” That 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.

Avelo Airlines employees greet arriving passengers disembarking at Hollywood Burbank Airport on April 28, 2021.Bing Guan / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In 2020, Raleigh-Durham International Airport deferred $96 million in construction projects. In April 2020, San Francisco International Airport announced the postponement of a billion-dollar renovation project for Terminal 3 West, where United Airlines operates. That project is still on hold, airport spokesman Doug Yakel told NBC News, adding that “we will be revisiting the timeline for this project later this year.”

During the pandemic, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport put its $3 billion, 24-gate Terminal F project on pause, but pressed ahead with some other major projects, including the accelerated reconstruction of an arrival runway, the opening of the four-gate Terminal D South extension of the international terminal, and the construction of a new operations center.

“We continued the work because it was important to the airport,” DFW CEO Sean Donohue said. “But the projects were also important to the region. During the peak of all that work it created 4,000 construction jobs.”

Los Angeles International Airport, Portland International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Kansas City International Airport all moved forward with major construction work during the pandemic — in some cases, completing projects ahead of schedule and with some cost savings, thanks to reduced traffic in and around the terminals.

Airports will lose at least $40 billion through March 2022 — and even more if passenger traffic stays depressed.

Pittsburgh International Airport, which put a hold on its $1.1 billion terminal project in April 2020 due to the pandemic, was able to restart that project in February this year.

“The pandemic really highlighted the need for our Terminal Modernization Project,” said Christina Cassotis, the airport's CEO. “We’ll be the first airport in the country built from the ground up in a post-pandemic world and that’s given us the chance to include public health as a key component of the design.”

Despite the summer bump in travel, passenger traffic and the revenue it brings to airports is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023. ACI-NA estimates airports will lose at least $40 billion through March 2022 — and even more if passenger traffic stays depressed. That makes funding for the airport infrastructure projects even more crucial.

“The reality is that as things get back to normal and some level of funding is agreed to, you’ll see a lot more cranes, and a lot more work that will benefit everyone,” Burke said. “That includes communities, airports, the trades and, of course, passengers.”