SAN ANTONIO – Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the San Antonio International Airport was taking in about 10.3 million passengers a year, slated to soon surpass 12 million. That amounts to thousands of passengers daily.
Now, only an average of 700 passengers are using the airport each day.
Airport administrators have made some basic changes to reduce airport expenditures. Staff members have had to get creative, changing job titles, cutting some projects and putting others on hold.
Among the changes include the closing of some bathrooms and roping off some seating so that they won’t have to be cleaned every day with high grade products.
Administrators are keeping as much staff as possible by moving them to different jobs.
Airport Chief Administration Officer Mookie Patel said the airport has not had to lay off any employees. New federal grant money mandates the airport maintain at least 90 percent of its staff as of March 27.
“We’re moving people to different positions, keeping some staff that typically don’t do janitorial cleaning. Some people are doing administrative tasks, clerical tasks that they wouldn’t normally be doing,” Patel said.
Patel said there are five non-mandatory maintenance projects being cancelled.
The airport has about 20 projects worth $16 million that will eventually be completed but have been put on hold. Those include two gate projects and a badge and ID office expansion.
Patel said some airport projects must continue.
“One being airfield projects,” he said. “Taxiway, runway improvement, those are federally funded, so 75% of the project comes from the federal government. Then there’s safety and security projects, like the perimeter fence project. Just because of COVID doesn’t mean we can lax our rules on safety and security.”
Other projects that will also continue are what Patel calls electrified GSE projects.
“Where we use the building to charge electrical ground support equipment. They’re not having to use diesel or gas anymore. So it’s an environmental-related project,” he explained.
One project that will continue in a more segmented way is the airport’s largest, the strategic development or master plan is an airport transformation meant to last 20 to 30 years.
There are three phases to the plan:
- Landside: things like roadways and parking.
- Terminal: which includes gates, restrooms and restaurants
- Airfield: runways, etc.
All phases will be slowed down eventually by the community input component which is a crucial part, mandated by the FAA.
Almost all of the community input thus far has been done in person, a strategy that will be crippled by social distancing guidelines.
“We were doing a lot of community outreach at different events, setting up small outreach of small groups. We were going to parks and different events. How we approach that moving forward is going to be tested,” Patel said.
When asked about the possibility of doing all outreach online, Patel said, "We could. We're going to take the pulse of our council and direction from our city leaders of what their representative feel needs to happen."
Patel said the airfield phase will slow the most, since it's the furthest along and is ready for that community input.
“There needs to be outreach to how the airfield will operate. Which runways will go in the future and how aircraft will operate on them,” he said. “That’s important, especially for many of our community members who live near the airport.”
Other phases need more work before community input, but will continue at a slower pace.
For the terminal phase, teams are still studying passenger numbers.
For the landside phase, teams are still calculating use of roadways, parking and curbside needs.
However, it's tough to count increases in passengers or ride share users, when the airport is basically empty.
"The master plan won't necessarily have to be re-written, it will just have to follow a different trajectory for a certain amount of time," Patel said.
A lot is up in the air but Patel believes the airport will bounce back after the pandemic.
"This pandemic, though horrible in nature, has forced us to take a new look at our capital expenditures, look at what was really needing to be done and what not to do," he said.
Patel says a lot of the progress also depends on federal, state and local funding over the next four or five years.
Just this week, the airport received $39.7 million as part of the Federal CARES Act.
That money will be used for debt payments to keep the facility running, paying utilities, payroll, as well as part of the master plan.
The federal government was already paying for 75% of the master plan and now the CARES grant is covering the rest.