Passengers at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport will see some noticeable construction in the coming year, thanks in large part to grants to increase its aircraft rescue and firefighting ability and improvements to the building itself, including internal escalators and elevators at the long-term parking lot.
The airport is also expected to receive about $15 million over the next five years from the federal government.
CHO Executive Director Melinda Crawford said some projects that had been pushed off due to the COVID-19 pandemic or cost increases will begin moving forward in the next year.
“There’s so many things that are out of our control … but there’s still so much that are within our control, that we have the ability to finance and keep moving forward,” she said. “We just have to be adaptable. I think the one thing about CHO is that in its 66 years of history it has been adaptable.”
The airport has remained open throughout the pandemic, but passenger counts are still down about 36% for the fiscal year-to-date through November compared with fiscal year 2020. But compared with the first five months of last fiscal year, passengers have more than doubled — up about 135%.
“It’s this unique pandemic that allowed us to slow down and really reevaluate,” Crawford said. “The days that we had 22 passengers a day out here outbound when typically, we would have seen about 1,300.”
Across the country, AAA was projecting that more than 109 million people — an almost 34% increase from 2020 — will travel 50 miles or more between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2.
“That dramatic bounce-back — 27.7 million more people traveling — will bring this year’s numbers to 92% of 2019 levels,” the travel agency said in a news release. “Airlines will see a 184% increase from last year.” No one yet knows the effect that the omicron variant might have on these projections.
Crawford said the Charlottesville airport’s passenger traffic typically experiences peaks in October, around Thanksgiving and around Christmas. January is slow, she said, but then it peaks again around March.
In October 2019, the airport had about 27 outbound flights a day and in December 2019, the airport was down to about 24 outbound flights a day. In December 2020, there were nine outbound flights a day from CHO.
Currently, the airport is averaging about 16 outbound flights a day.
“What we have seen is that by April we will be up to 21 departures [a day], so we are seeing it come back,” CHO Deputy Executive Director Jason Burch said. “We saw the worst of it, and now we’re seeing the passengers’ response to flights… CHO has always been blessed with customers that support us.”
Some of the airport’s capital expenses were moved up in its budget. Most recently, in August the airport was awarded $1,531,285 in federal Airport Improvement Program funding for an aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicle, as well as snow removal equipment, which were moved up in the budget.
At that time, it was also awarded $3,723,084 for improvements to the terminal building.
The airport does not receive funding from area local governments. The majority of its budget comes from flight operations, parking fees and other income that it generates, as well as projects funded by the Federal Aviation Administration and Virginia Department of Aviation.
The state will not pay for projects associated with parking, but the FAA can pay for a portion of parking projects promoting movement of passengers and luggage.
As part of the federal infrastructure bill signed into law in November, CHO will receive $15,444,835 over the next five years. U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine made an announcement about the funding last month, but airport staff haven’t gotten any specifics about what it will get or through what process the funding will be allocated.
“We have yet to get anything from the FAA about those grants,” Crawford said. “I know nothing about it.”
But one of the big upcoming projects for the airport during the next year will be new internal escalators. Crawford said currently about 60% of passengers use the escalators to get to and from the American Airlines gates.
“Our passengers are going to see some change,” she said. “We’re going to be putting a modular building behind the restaurant on the first floor and the seating area will be using that modular building.”
The temporary modular building will allow the contractor to work consistently, she said, as well as ensure that security requirements are adhered to at all times.
Another project is for new elevators to the long-term parking lot, which is a fully-funded project through the FAA. Originally, the existing elevator and pavilion was going to be replaced, but costs came back higher than what was estimated. Now the airport is going to build two covered walkways at the north and south stairs to the parking lot with two elevators.
“We’d already put in the new sets of stairs in 2014, so they were a great resource that we weren’t willing to let go,” Crawford said. “The base of each one of those stairs in that parking lot will have a really nice elevator pavilion. You’ll get in that, come up and come across.”
Having two elevators will also allow for backup if one is not working, she said. Currently, if the single elevator breaks, airport staff help passengers with their luggage from the parking lot.
Pre-pandemic, the airport had been planning to build a parking garage, but that project is still delayed.
“I wish I could tell you when you would see a [parking] deck,” Crawford said. “But I really do believe passenger traffic is going to drive that and sustainability is going to drive that. Any project we do moving forward is going to be very high with energy sustainability.”,
The airport has been working with a consultant on a terminal area plan, which was delayed due to the pandemic, and Crawford said airport staff plan on bringing recommendations to its board in January.
“All of the options are wonderful, it’s just that they’re not financially realistic,” she said. “So we have to go back and look at our capital budget, look at the projects they’re proposing, and see how that capital budget could be amended and what resources we could come up with.”