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With Few Fliers, San Diego Airport Struggling With Coronavirus Fallout

San Diego International Airport sign on Harbor Drive on Aug. 12, 2019
Erik Anderson
San Diego International Airport sign on Harbor Drive on Aug. 12, 2019

San Diego’s airport business is effectively grounded since the COVID-19 social distancing restrictions hit in mid-March. The last two months have been financially brutal for San Diego’s largest airport.

“This is just … it continues to go on,” San Diego County Airport Authority President and CEO Kim Becker, said.

The last time airlines struggled like this was when air traffic was stopped for three days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

COVID-19 has nearly shut down the airlines since mid-March.

The proof that people are not flying is verified at the airport’s Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.

“Typically we would monitor passenger traffic on a monthly basis, and that was OK because we knew what to expect,” Becker said. “We started monitoring traffic on a daily basis. And on an average day going through our TSA checkpoints we would have about 40,000 employees, crew and passengers.”

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The airline traffic hit bottom a few weeks ago. Only about 1,000 people went through the checkpoints. That number is now up to 2,000 a day.

Passenger traffic is down 95%. San Diego International Airport used to have 550 to 600 takeoffs and landings a day, now it's down to about 150.

But Becker remains optimistic.

“As people gain confidence, traffic will come back,” Becker said.

That, however, probably will not happen this year. The Airport Authority predicts only 13 million passengers will pass through the facility this year — half the number from a year ago.

“It’ll be a different kind of environment,” Becker said. “Airlines will be very selective in the flights that they do bring back. But we have a really strong market in San Diego, not only our business community but our travel and tourism community and people like to come here. So that will benefit San Diego overall.”

How the airport rebounds is critical for the local economy.

San Diego International Airport leaves a $12 billion a year economic footprint on the region and it creates, directly and indirectly, 118,000 jobs.

“The airport is a generator of business for the San Diego economy,” said Ray Major, San Diego Association of Government’s chief economist. “So you think about those 118,000 people that kind of represents almost 6% of the San Diego workforce.”

Majors says the airport is a cornerstone of a tourism sector that attracts 22 million people to San Diego each year.

“People fly into San Diego to enjoy the tourist activities that we have over here. Both internationally and domestically,” Major said. “And each one of those passengers leaves money here in the region — $835 per person who stops here.

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That money gets spent at local hotels, restaurants and theme parks, such as the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and Legoland.

Health concerns, however, are just one-factor challenging airports in a COVID-19 world. Major said demand is going down and the cost is going up. Some airlines are already charging passengers a $39 premium fee to keep center row seats unfilled.

“Air travel becomes more expensive. That is also going to have people not using it as a form of transportation again,” Major said.

Airline industry analyst Khalid Usman tracks the airline industry for the international consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

He says the business downturn is unprecedented, but airlines have shown resilience in the past.

“The airline industry has gone through downturns in the past and it has always rebounded,” Usman said.

He expects the industry to take off again, but it could take a long time.

“Things are going to be somewhat slowing down next year as well," Usman said. "It will be a path to recovery where things are improving on the economic front and travel starts getting back to normal. But this could likely take a few years before we are fully back to normal.”

And that slow back to normal for the airline industry assumes researchers are successful in finding a vaccine and treatments for the coronavirus.

With Few Fliers, San Diego Airport Struggling With Coronavirus Fallout
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.