Airport Terminals

Airports Hope for Infrastructure Help

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)

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 (BUR) in April, it raised the airport’s profile as an alternative to Los Angeles International. And put a spotlight on BUR’s outdated facilities

“The existing terminal is too close to the runways and taxiways,” explains BUR executive director Frank Miller, “And the building is now 91 years old.” 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,” says Miller.

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 study by Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) released in March.

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

Will infrastructure funds help?

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. That fee was last raised from $3 to $4.50 twenty years ago, before 9/11.

And it is why all eyes are on the $25 billion line item for airports in the Biden Administration’s infrastructure plan being hammered out in Washington, D.C.

The proposal includes $10 billion to supplement the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), $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.” And now there are “tens of billions of dollars in additional projects that have been delayed or canceled due to the pandemic and economic recession.”

Projects on, Projects off

For example, during 2020, Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) deferred $96 million in construction projects. And in April 2020, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) announced the postponement of a $1B renovation project for Terminal 3 West, where United Airlines operates. That project is still on hold, says airport spokesman Doug Yakel, “Although we will be revisiting the timeline for this project later this year.” 

During the pandemic, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) put the $3 billion, 24-gate Terminal F project on pause. But it 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,” explains DFW CEO Sean Donohue. “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 (LAX), Portland International Airport (PDX), Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), and Kansas City International Airport (KCI) are some other airports that 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.

And Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), which put a hold on it $1.1 billion terminal project in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was able to restart that project in February 2021.

“The pandemic really highlighted the need for our Terminal Modernization Project,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport. “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.”

Next steps?

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 finding funding for all the needed airport infrastructure projects more important.  

The funds needed for short and long-term capital improvement projects at US airports far exceed the amounts in any of the proposed federal packages. “But 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 everyone,” says ACI-NA’s Burke.

“That includes communities, airports, the trades and, of course, passengers.”

What’s up at Portland International Airport?

Our first post-pandemic road trip takes us to Oregon, starting at – where else – Portland International Airport (PDX).

The airport is getting a new main terminal and we stopped in to get an “in-progress” view and to learn about what it will take to make the project happen.

Here are some snaps of what the terminal looks like now.

Sadly, one of our favorite features of PDX, the pre-security shopping street with branches of many local favorites, is gone and not coming back. But many of these shops still have post-security outlets, and additional local shops are opening now, with more on the way.

Outside, things look pretty torn up too. But we were assured that the construction is not getting in the way of flight schedules. No small feat!

Here’s are some renderings of what the new terminal will look like. And below, a recent PDX tweet with a video of what we’ll see inside the new terminal. It looks like it will be pretty snazzy, pretty Portland, and very northwest.

See how airports embrace the ‘How it Started’ meme

We know we haven’t found them all. Yet.

But we are enjoying the way airports around the country are using the ‘How it Started vs. How it’s going’ meme to show off their lovely modern terminals.

Feel free to send us others you find. We will add them to the list over the weekend.

**Update: we’ve got a second list of How it started vs. How it’s going.

This one is especially impressive.

If you spot other airports posting their “How it started” photos, please let us know. We may break this up into two posts. Or lean how to make an album.

How to win a pair of SEA airport carpet socks

A section of the North Satellite at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is closing down as part of a facility upgrade.

Locals and visitors alike have lots of memories associated with riding the underground train out to the North Satellite – and all the trips taken to and from Seattle from those gates since 1973.

And Gate N7 is famous for being the gate where Annie (played by Meg Ryan) walks right past Sam (played by Tom Hanks) in the 1993 hit movie Sleepless in Seattle

Before the next section of the North Satellite closes, SEA airport is asking travelers to send in stories and memories – and perhaps photos – of the North Satellite on the Sea-Tac Airport Facebook page and and on Instagram using #goodnightN7.

If you do, you may win a pair of SEA Airport carpet socks.

First look at Jewel Changi Airport attraction in Singapore

With a butterfly garden, pool, free movie theaters and much, much more, Singapore’s Changi Airport is all about the wow.

With the opening of the Jewel Changi Airport attraction, this award-winning airport is even more wow.

Located right in front of Terminal 1, on space formerly occupied by a parking lot, the Jewel is a large dome-shaped structure with a lush “Forest Valley,” a Rain Vortex that’s now the tallest indoor waterfall in the world, a 130-cabin YotelAIR hotel and 280 shops and restaurants.

I was on-site today for the opening-day preview events. Here are some snaps from the day.

More details about the attraction to come.