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Airport gets $6.3M in relief funding as travel vanishes

Not too long ago, about 2,100 people traveled daily to meetings, events and family gatherings via the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport.

In the past month, the airport has lost nearly all its passengers as flights are canceled and people choose to not travel amid the coronavirus pandemic, but an infusion of federal funding is helping local officials keep employees and continue operations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Tuesday that the airport would receive about $6.3 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act stimulus package that Congress passed last month.

“These funds will … help make sure that once this crisis is over, airports can safely resume serving Virginians and individuals traveling in and out of the Commonwealth,” U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in a joint press release Tuesday.

The funding is available for airport capital and operating expenses, such as payroll and utilities.

CHO is an independent airport and, unlike some smaller airports, does not receive funding from local governments. Instead, it uses federal money and revenue generated from passengers for operations, with about half of its budget funded through parking fees.

Air travel is virtually nonexistent as a majority of the country is under a stay-at-home order.

On March 1 alone, the Transportation Security Administration said it screened nearly 2.3 million people. By the end of March, screenings had dropped to less than 150,000, a decline of more than 97%.

According to Airlines for America, an industry lobbying group, 2,581 aircraft had been idled as of Tuesday.

CHO’s annual budget is about $8.4 million, Executive Director Melinda Crawford said. With the roughly 97% drop in passengers, parking revenue has dropped by about the same amount.

“If our budget is about $4.2 million in parking, that’s a big hit to the operational revenue of the airport,” Crawford said.

From the normal flow of a little over 2,000 passengers a day, CHO has dropped to fewer than 100 people coming through the doors on some days, Crawford said.

“Typically during this time of year our parking lots would be full and we’d have a lot of passengers coming through our terminal,” she said.

Less than three hours before takeoff on Wednesday, 39 of 51 seats were available on an American Airlines flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, as were 34 of 50 seats on a Delta Air Lines flight to Atlanta.

Crawford said that 10 flights might be canceled in a day; five of 12 departures and six of 13 arrivals were canceled on Wednesday.

American no longer appears to be offering direct flights to New York, although its incoming flight from Columbus, Ohio, was still operating.

United Airlines had all but four seats available on a route to Chicago and all but five seats on a flight to Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Crawford said that while rental car companies are still open and handling passengers, the restaurant in the airport is operating with minimal staffing and airline employees are working truncated schedules.

The 50 employees who work directly for the airport authority, however, haven’t seen a reduction in hours.

“We have not had any change in our operation, if anything we’ve shifted employees around so there’s more focus on cleaning the facilities,” Crawford said. “We are more mindful in our cleaning and more extensive in our cleaning procedures.”

The three airlines that fly out of the local airport — American, Delta and United {span}—{/span} were among 10 companies to reach an agreement in principle with the Trump administration on Tuesday for a $25 billion bailout.

According to The New York Times, the money will be structured as part grant and part loan through the U.S. Treasury Department, which would also buy stock in the companies.

The bailout was part of the larger coronavirus stimulus package and includes payroll support, grants and loans. Airlines that accept the payroll support money are prohibited from major staffing or pay cuts through September, according to the Times.

American Airlines told the Times that it is receiving $5.8 billion, of which $4 billion will be grants and the rest will be a low-interest loan. Delta said it is receiving $5.4 billion, including a $1.6 billion loan. United Airlines officials told the Times that the company would complete its agreement in the next few days.

Crawford said the airport is taking the opportunity to make repairs to the parking lots, change out lighting and conduct other maintenance tasks while fewer people are around. Employees also are conducting custodial, parking, administration and parking duties.

“While we might have fewer passengers coming through our doors, we’re still performing the same services,” Crawford said. “We operate for the benefit of the community and we have not cut back any on the operations on the actual services that are performed by the airport authority.”


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