Airport Q&A with AAND President, Matthew Remynse
The aviation industry has been key to the economy of North Dakota. There are 8 commercial airports in the state who have seen continued and sustained growth in both boardings and flight offerings/destinations over the years. There have been two new terminals built within the past 5 years and others have expanded or enhanced their current facilities.
COVID-19 is impacting all business and industry but the aviation industry has felt the quickest and swiftest jolts. Recently the North Dakota commercial airports came together via conference call to share trends, concerns, and ongoing efforts to better understand statewide impacts. Following the call, GNDC sat down with the Airport Association of North Dakota President, Matthew Remynse to discuss how the state’s airports are feeling and dealing with the pandemic.
GNDC: How is the virus affecting the state’s airports?
Remynse: The state’s commercial airports are seeing impacts in a variety of ways, specifically reductions in air service and drastic decreases in passage boardings, which are down by 90%. With these reductions, airports are seeing a decline in ancillary fees from vendors and concessionaires – restaurants, coffee shops, car rentals, parking. This downward cycle will be difficult for airports financially.
In terms of daily operations, there have been changes made to ensure spread is limited and does not impact the functionality of each airport. Most airport administrative staff are working from home. Regarding operations and maintenance, key personnel are split into teams. Meaning, individuals work with the same individuals/team each shift consistently. This approach limits social interactions among the entire staff and provides continuity of airport operations if one shift were to obtain the virus.
How are airports increasing sanitation to fight the potential spread from and to travelers?
Commercial airports in the state have instituted additional cleaning for their terminals including stronger disinfectants and are cleaning more areas, more regularly – these include door knobs, handrails.
How does this pandemic compare to 9/11, which changed the entire aviation industry?
The long term effects are unknown. 9/11 created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and additional security measures, which reinstalled confidence in the traveling public. The pandemic is similar in that there is a very low number of travelers. The difference is 9/11 had a person to blame for the incident. Here this is a faceless enemy. We don’t know how long the spread will last or when the containment will occur. Some people don’t even know they are carrying the virus. Right now, people are scared to travel. As the fear diminishes, traveling will resume but it is unsure how fast air travel will return to what we know it to be.
Is there talk of grounding all flights?
As I am aware, no. Airlines have made significant reductions to accommodate low demands.
Will airports benefit from Federal Legislation?
Several airports across the state contacted our congressional delegation, supporting the CARES Act, which has a $10B Airport stimulus package, benefitting all 8 commercial airports. The fund will be accessed through the Airport Improvement Program. Allocations will be based on 2018 passenger boarding numbers and can be used for any legal purposes specific to operations or capital projects. Airlines will receive their own package, $58B.
Will airports have a heavier reliance on the funds acquired through Operation Prairie Dog?
The funds granted by OPD were always important, even with this downturn they will remain vital for key capital projects in the state.
GNDC also checked in with North Dakota Aeronautics Commission Director, Kyle Wanner. The Commission was established by the ND State Legislature to provide representation of the state in aviation matters and to provide responsibility for the state’s aviation programs and regulatory framework. His perspective mirrored that of the 8 commercial airports."The COVID-19 virus is having an unprecedented and significant impact on airports throughout our state and country. The recent stimulus package passed by Congress will help provide short term relief for the aviation industry and will help our community leaders continue to work through this crisis. All eight of our commercial service airports remain operational at this time and our incredible airport staff throughout the state are doing the best they can to maintain safe facilities for those people who need to utilize the safest air transportation system in the world. Airport staff and TSA personnel are also being proactive to sanitize surfaces throughout the airport multiple times a day in efforts to maintain clean facilities and help to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Though these are currently difficult times, our airports are working hard to be in a position to help our economy rebound, once the COVID-19 virus concerns have subsided."
Related to airports and commercial air service, this will impact the airlines' workforce. Coming into 2020, the nation had a pilot shortage. Now we see a complete pendulum swing as pilots are facing furlough. For more detailed information on this situation, check out this video, "Navigating Airline Careers During Downturns & Uncertainty" from March 26 by University of North Dakota experts: Dr. Jim Higgins, Professor Kent Lovelace, and Dr. Brandon Wild.
Regarding the UAS industry, we reached out to Tommy Kenville, Rainmaker for iSight RPV Services. He spoke at our November CEO Roundtable on Transportation, "During this epidemic, drones will be able to be used in place of people for some activities. As a company, we haven't done this yet. It is an interesting time."