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Orlando International and other Florida airports await emergency funds to avoid furloughs, sustain operations

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By John Haughey | The Center Square

Florida airports are jet parking lots and its skies are quiet, disconcerting sights and sounds in a state built on tourism.

Many of Florida’s 129 airports said they need to tap into $10 billion in federal emergency funding to overcome operating budget shortfalls and avoid furloughs as the COVID-19 pandemic brings air travel to a near-stop.

Commercial airline traffic down by 60 percent to 75 percent and the number of passengers have pared by more than 90 percent nationwide, according to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

TSA reported Wednesday that 97,130 passengers passed through U.S. airport security checkpoints Tuesday.

The 97,130 passengers TSA said passed through airport checkpoints Tuesday was half the number of national air travelers March 27, which was half of what it was March 22, which was half of what it was March 17, which was half of what it was March 8, when 2.12 million passed through the nation’s airports.

According to TSA, 2,597 passengers cleared TSA checkpoints at Orlando International Airport (OIA) Monday, a 97 percent drop from the same day last year.

Of 573 flights scheduled Tuesday, nearly half the normal volume, 230 were canceled, according to the Greater Orlando Airport Authority, which operates OIA.

Airlines cancelled 72 cancelled flights Monday at Southwest Florida International Airport outside of Fort Myers, where the Lee County Port Authority has reported a 60 percent decline in flights and a 90 percent to 95 percent drop in passenger traffic.

The ripple effect is the same across the state. Miami International Airport (MIA), the state’s leader for international flights and third in the nation, now offers flights to only Mexico, London and Qatar.

The dramatic decline in flights and passenger traffic, as well as the closures of most on-site retail businesses, means airports’ primary sources of revenue – taxes, fees and lease income from airlines, restaurants, rental cars, taxis and airline tickets – quickly have evaporated.

According to the Florida Airports Council, the state’s 129 airports accommodate more than 176 million passengers a year and support more than 1.4 million jobs.

The airport funding breakdown, according to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA):

• $7.4 billion for commercial service airports “to be used for any lawful purpose;”

• $2 billion for distribution through the Airport Improvement Program (AIP);

• $500 million to fund local share (matching requirements) for 2020 AIP grants;

• $100 million for general aviation airports.

To secure emergency funding, “large, medium and small hub airports must maintain 90 percent of workforce through end of 2020,” the FAA stipulated.

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority has not cut hours or furloughed any of its 800 OIA workers, but it will meet next week to discuss the potential of doing so unless, or until, federal assistance arrives.

OIA is the nation’s 10th-busiest airport, handling 50 million travelers annually. According to a Florida Department of Transportation report, OIA had a state-leading $41 billion impact in 2017, topping Miami International Airport’s $33 billion.

Airport managers hope the federal “float” money will allow them to avoid tapping into capital improvements and other funds to sustain operations.

It may already be too late for some, including Sarasota-Bradenton and Southwest Florida, where some planned improvements may be delayed or derailed. Southwest Florida, for instance, may need to cancel a $250 million project because $150 million to pay for it was from passenger-generated revenues.

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