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Some airport construction projects grounded by fears of post-coronavirus downturn

Expect Major Delays

Some airport construction projects grounded by fears of post-coronavirus downturn

Problem-plagued and a very long time coming, Berlin’s new airport is due to open this fall. (It’s pictured here in 2010). Other airports, however, are pushing back major construction projects until the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on air travel is more clear. (Michael F. Mehnert/Wikimedia Commons)

At a handful of major airports across the globe, major construction projects geared to meet increased passenger demand are being halted due to worries that after the coronavirus crisis ends, travelers will be slow to regain their lust for spending long stretches of time confined to tightly sealed metal tubes pumped full of re-circulated air. At other airports, however, work on new runways, terminals, and renovations continue apace.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, some forecasts anticipate that air travel won’t return to pre-coronavirus levels until 2023—of course, there are numerous variables, including the creation of a vaccine, that could easily influence crystal ball gazing of industry analysts. Whatever the case, ambiguity about when demand will return has resulted in trepidation when it comes to proceeding with billion-dollar airport overhauls; the options are pause work indefinitely or dramatically scale back plans (San Francisco International Airport, San Diego International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Auckland Airport in freshly COVID-free New Zealand) or, alternately, continue to move ahead as planned (Hong Kong International Airport, Chicago O’ Hare, Frankfurt Airport in Germany, and Western Sydney Airport, which will be the second airport for Australia’s most populous city when it opens in 2026 provided that the current construction timetable keeps).

“We are convinced that we will again see long-term growth in air traffic,” Stefan Schulte, executive board chairman of Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport AG, was reported by the Journal as telling investors at a recent shareholder meeting. “A new terminal is not built on an outlook of just two or three years, but rather for the decades to come.”

Another major airport project in Germany, the new Brandenburg Berlin Airport, designed by gmp Architects and JSK International, is still reportedly scheduled to open this fall after a nearly 15-year construction period beset by seemingly endless delays. What exact level of demand Berlin’s new airport, anticipated to become the third busiest in Germany once fully up and running, will encounter when it finally does open just a few months from now remains to be seen.

In addition to anxiety over how soon demand will resume post-pandemic, many revenue-strapped airports that are opting to postpone or scale back on work are doing so because they need the cash in the short-term to redirect to basic maintenance, employee salaries, and subsidies for retail tenants hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. Simply, it doesn’t make sense—as is with the case at San Francisco International Airport—to continue with a $1 billion terminal renovation during a time when existing terminals are half-empty and revenue shortfalls continue to grow.

By and large, the duration of these construction delays is unknown. At the (previously) fast-growing Austin-Bergstrom Airport in Texas, which experienced a 52 percent drop in passenger traffic this past March compared to the same month the previous year, officials say it’s too early to tell when work on that airport’s planned expansion will commence. “It’s really too soon to project exactly any hard timelines for how much things will shift one way or another and part of that is also because of how quickly we rebound on passenger demand,” airport spokesperson Bryce Dubee told local ABC affiliate KVUE. “It’s probably going to take several years to get back up to the numbers that we were seeing heading into 2020. There really has been an industry-wide impact from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Journal noted that the exact amount of construction work halted at global airports is unclear.

One airport construction upside not mentioned by the Journal is the ongoing $4.1 billion expansion of Salt Lake City International Airport, which on track to be completed two years earlier and $300 million under budget due in large part to the pandemic. As explained by the Salt Lake Tribune, because passenger numbers have been so low during the crisis, some older terminals and concourses can be demolished ahead of schedule, avoiding complicated, costly, and time-consuming gate reconfigurations that would have been needed during later construction phases.

Despite dramatic revenue dips, gate expansion work at Denver International Airport has similarly kicked into high gear during the pandemic as passengers largely continue to stay away. This is also the case with the highly anticipated $3.5 billion redevelopment of New York’s famously grotty LaGuardia Airport, where work came to a grinding halt during the early phases of the pandemic. As Forbes reported, Delta Air Lines CFO Paul Jacobson explained at the Wolfe Research Global Transportation Conference in May that the sharp drop-off in passengers has now enabled Delta to not only “lower the overall project cost but also deliver it much, much sooner.”