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Florida airports will continue to struggle until ban on international travel lifted

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Passengers wearing face masks leave the United Airlines ticket counter after checking in Tuesday, June 16, 2020, at the Tampa International Airport in Tampa, Fla. Chris O'Meara / AP

At least 15 Florida airports will receive more than $71.5 million in the FAA grants, including $10.94 million to Orlando Sanford International Airport to rehabilitate a taxiway and taxiway lighting

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will issue more than $1.2 billion in infrastructure and safety improvement grants to 405 airports across the nation.

“This $1.2 billion federal investment will improve our nation’s airport infrastructure, enhance safety, and strengthen growth in local communities, which is especially important as the economy recovers from COVID-19,” Chao said.

While the money for planned improvements can offset other budget pressures, Florida’s beleaguered airports will remain in financial distress unless or until people are convinced it is safe to fly and the federal government lifts its ban on flights from Europe and South America.

About $1 billion in the FAA grants will be allocated from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and more than $150 million will come from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was adopted in March.

The CARES Act in April and May allocated nearly $900 million in emergency assistance to 129 Florida airports struggling to pay salaries and bills. Flight traffic was down at least 75 percent since the skies were cleared of commercial aircraft by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new round of grants, however, with the possible exception of the $150 million in CARES Act money, cannot be used to offset revenue declines. The grants must be applied to maintenance and improvement projects.

At least 15 Florida airports will receive more than $71.5 million in the FAA grants, including:

• $7.28 million for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to install lighting, rehabilitate a taxiway and install a visual guidance system;

• $4.96 million for Key West International Airport for noise mitigation;

• $5.55 million for Lakeland Linder International Airport to improve a taxiway and rehabilitate taxiway lighting;

• $6.9 million to Orlando Melbourne International Airport to improve the terminal building;

• $8.41 million to Miami Executive Airport to construct a taxiway;

• $10.94 million to Orlando Sanford International Airport to rehabilitate a taxiway and taxiway lighting;

• $6 million to Tallahassee International Airport to rehabilitate the taxiway.

While the infrastructure and safety grants indirectly can provide budget relief for airport authorities, they’ll do little to address the sharp drop in revenue airports collect from airlines and other aviation and retail businesses without a sharp increase in air travel.

The airline industry’s economic effect in Florida, more than $175 billion annually according to a 2019 Florida Department of Transportation study, will decline by at least 30 percent to 50 percent this year, according to various projections.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during roundtables at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airport last month said the “track record” shows it is safe to fly and federal bans on travel from Europe and Brazil should be lifted.

“I think that’s served its purpose,” DeSantis said of the European travel. “I don’t know that those restrictions need to be in place anymore. And the same thing with Brazil.”

South Florida’s two largest airports – Miami and Fort Lauderdale – have seen international travel decline by 85 percent from year ago.

Miami International Airport Director Lester Sola said international travel typically accounts for half of that airport’s revenue. He predicted if the ban was lifted, flights from Latin America and Europe would resume quickly.

“The demand is there,” he said. “We get constant inquiries from people wanting to travel to Miami – people who have homes here, people who have businesses here.”

Tampa International Airport (TIA) already is planning for a resumption of international travel as soon as Oct. 1. During a virtual board meeting Thursday, a slide listed more than a dozen international flights from Tampa to London, Zurich, Frankfurt, Havana and Toronto resuming by then.

“By the end of the year – actually, October, for example – you’d be able to fly to Frankfurt on Lufthansa again,” TIA Executive Vice President of Communications Chris Minner told the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Board. “All of this, obviously, is subject to the continuing dynamics of COVID, and what governments are doing with their restrictions.”

The resumption of international flights is “the No. 1 question that we continue to get,” Minner said, noting TIA passenger traffic has plummeted during the pandemic, with only 594,000 passengers in July – a 68 percent year-over-year drop.

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