More passengers — and more destinations — are returning to the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, and the airport is readying itself for takeoff in a post-pandemic business environment.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine toured the airport Tuesday afternoon to discuss the Senate-approved $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan and how it could help CHO.
“We want to make sure that our airports are ready to grow and ready to succeed as we come out of the pandemic,” Kaine said. “The funding in the infrastructure bill … will provide sizable funding for Virginia’s airports, so that as people are starting to travel again — and I think there’s huge pent-up demand — our airports will be ready to go.”
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was approved by the Senate earlier this month, and Kaine said he thinks the multipurpose infrastructure bill will pass the House and go to the President’s desk by the end of September.
“[It] could be the biggest investment in infrastructure that we’ve made as a nation since the interstate highway system in the late 1950s,” he said.
Melinda Crawford, the airport’s executive director, said the airport has been working on a terminal area master plan, which will help direct the airport authority in the best way to utilize federal and state money, along with airport revenues, to expand the terminal building, as well as the airport’s parking, rental car facilities and plane-side infrastructure.
She said getting funding for large projects without having to go into a lot of debt will be important, because the debt will have to stay open for projects where federal funding cannot be used, such as around parking.
A key project will be a terminal expansion, Crawford said, as well as improvements around the control tower, built in 1970.
“We’ve also already got a design in place [to convert] all of our runway lighting and airfield lighting to LED to make us more energy conscious,” she said. “That project’s been designed, but getting the funding to pay for it is going to be the issue.”
Kaine said airports will get designated funding out of the infrastructure bill, but there also could be competitive grants.
“Anytime a local government, an airport or a nonprofit is trying to get a federal grant, we try to weigh in for them, and so that’s another way I think I can use what I’ve learned today to go to bat for CHO on any competitive grant that might be possible once we pass the infrastructure bill,” he said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the airport was seeing record growth, but the number of passengers rapidly declined during the pandemic.
Crawford said the airport is seeing about 70% of the passengers that it had pre-pandemic.
“If things hold like they are, that should carry us through,” she said. “We should be able to weather the storm.”
Philadelphia returned as a destination earlier this summer, and LaGuardia is scheduled to become a destination again in early October.
The airport’s normal operational budget is about $8 million. Last year, the airport was awarded $6.3 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act as well as nearly $3 million in federal money earlier this year.
The airport was recently awarded about $5.4 million in Airport Improvement Program funding to purchase an aircraft rescue and fire fighting vehicle, acquire snow removal equipment and to improve the terminal building.
Typically, for AIP funding, airports need to provide a 10% match, but that was not required in this round due to the American Rescue Plan.
“It was about a little over $500,000 that we saved by not having to come up with that match, and we would have had to use our state money or airport authority money,” she said.
On Tuesday, Kaine toured two projects funded by the Federal Aviation Administration: an air carrier ramp expansion and a new taxiway.
CHO 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. The airport cannot use FAA money or state money for parking projects, as it’s considered a revenue producing project.
Prior to the pandemic, Crawford said the airport had completed a number of “smart projects” that helped it survive the pandemic, which include a reconfiguration and expansion of its security checkpoint, upgrades to its bathrooms and installation of charging stations that further separate seats.