ABIA delays expansion, cites COVID-19, plummeting air travel numbers

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin-Bergstrom International Airport officials say the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the 2040 Master Plan by a couple of years due to the ongoing impact on air travel. The plan aimed to accommodate the growing number of passengers. Officials had expected demand to double over the next 20 years to more than 31 million travelers.

At present, officials are not sure exactly how many years they might have to delay the expansion but did say they will move forward with the plan once the time is right.

“We do know that eventually there are going to be air service demands that we’re going to have to keep up with and that expansion is still on the horizon for us,” explained AUS spokesperson Bryce Dubee. “We may have to adjust our window as far as what that looks like by maybe a couple of years or so but it is something that we are still working on, planning on, and taking a look at. Obviously right now with overall passenger demand still way early in the recovery process, it’s not something that we need to expand right now.”

The pandemic caused travel at Austin-Bergstrom to drop by 60% in 2020. The hit comes after a decade of growth and a record-high year of 17.3 million passengers in 2019. Last year, the airport experienced its all-time low of just 6.4 million passengers.

Airport officials say historically March kicks off spring and summer travel thanks to spring break and an influx of tourists from across the world making their way to Austin for South By Southwest. However, this year, the event is virtual, so airport officials don’t expect a bump from the event. Instead, they’re hoping consumer confidence rises as the vaccine rollout continues across Central Texas.

“What we’re really seeing right now is that there has been a gradual slight uptick in travel as a lot more folks are getting vaccinated,” explained Dubee.

The airport just had its second-busiest day of the year March 7 with 14,288 passengers. The busiest day so far this year was on Jan. 3 following the holiday season with 14,364 passengers. That’s about half of the normal numbers airport officials said they would experience before the pandemic.

“Normally this time of year we would be seeing anywhere between 25,000 to 28,000 passengers a day,” Dubee said. “It has been a challenging year for folks across the industry.”

Dubee said they’re hopeful for the gradual rise and the future of air travel.

“There is a confidence in Central Texas both as Austin being a popular travel destination for other parts – all throughout the country – as well as there being increased demand from Austin travelers,” he explained. “It really expresses there’s confidence in the market and we do see that there is a positive future coming out of COVID-19 for Austin-Bergstrom.”

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