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Can $8B in grants smooth out U.S. airports’ uneven recovery?

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The vacant United Airlines check-in counter at San Francisco International in early August.

The United Airlines check-in counter at San Francisco International. Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

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The Federal Aviation Administration is giving $8 billion worth of grants — taken out of the last pandemic relief package — to airports around the country.

Although airports are still hurting, air travel is coming back. Earlier this month, more than 2 million people a day passed through TSA security checkpoints for the first time since the pandemic began.

For a few months last fall and winter, there were no regularly scheduled commercial flights going in and out of Dubuque Regional Airport in Iowa. American Airlines had temporarily suspended all three of its daily flights to Chicago. Todd Dalsing, director of the airport, said it’s starting to feel busier.

“In January, they returned with one flight a day, that got bumped up to two flights a day just recently,” Dalsing said. The airport’s restaurant remains closed. “It’s hard to keep employees paid when you have a limited number of flights,” Dalsing said — there’s also now only one place to rent a car, instead of two.

It’s been a tough year, financially, for all airports, said Kevin Burke, CEO of the trade group Airports Council International-North America. “The key revenue sources for airports are the landing fees they get from airlines, the concession fees that they get from the concessions to the airport, and the Ubers and Lyfts that pay a fee to get into airports,” he said. “All that revenue was way, way, way down during the past year.”

Steve Dickson, an FAA administrator who looks at air traffic numbers every day said that “generally speaking” large domestic hubs were doing pretty well, especially those with a lot of vacation travelers. Airports that rely more on business and international travel are taking longer to recover. Dickson said airports will be able to use these federal grants to pay staff, cover operating costs, pay off debt and keep restaurants and other businesses open.

“If you’ve been in an airport, you know how important all the services are: car rentals, restaurants, catering businesses, things like that,” he said.

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