home Investment News Though renovations and expansions may slow, New York’s 3 airports will stay open

Though renovations and expansions may slow, New York’s 3 airports will stay open


Closing one of the New York City-area’s three major airports is not an option, even as the coronavirus pandemic has driven passenger traffic down more than 95%, Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said Thursday. 

“The notion of closing one of the three major airports in the New York region never made any sense to us,” said Cotton, speaking after the agency’s monthly board meeting, and adding that such a move would require massive regulatory hurdles. “We cannot, on our own, close a major airport. I’m not aware of any major airport in the country that shut down.” 

But staying open hasn’t been easy. The interstate agency said it expects to lose $3 billion in revenue over the next two years as a result of the crisis, which could jeopardize long-overdue renovation and expansion projects across its facilities, which include John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International airports. In addition to those projects, the airports face a bevy of new safety protocols — potentially including temperature checks for every passenger — and getting both done will be critical to rebuilding trust with hesitant travelers.

To keep the airports running, the Port Authority has taken numerous measures to cut costs, closing entire concourses and terminals, fencing off access and limiting services, Cotton said. Virtually all retail at the airports is closed except for grab-and-go food. 

Plus, shutting an airport would have been a logistical nightmare and limited access to the region at a time when its hospitals were in dire need of more medical personnel and lifesaving equipment.

“Air cargo has been vital here,” Cotton said, adding that the three airports each serve very different areas. 

“We did not go to the FAA to seek the permission we would need to close,” he said. “We simply would not do that.”

But keeping the airports operating threatens to take an immense toll on the Port Authority’s more than $37 billion, 10-year capital improvement plan. 

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Many of the projects meant to modernize New York City’s aging airports are already well under way. They range from aesthetic changes to terminal replacements and new AirTrain construction that will improve the long, unpredictable time it takes to get to and from the three travel hubs.

The projects also include the complete rebuilding and unification of LaGuardia Airport, a disjointed collection of terminals with many services and eateries inconveniently located on the wrong side of the security checkpoints.  

To keep that work on track, officials at the agency have asked the federal government for $3 billion in direct aid in future stimulus packages, the next of which the Senate is expected to debate in the coming weeks. 

This week, 27 Democratic and Republican members of Congress representing New York and New Jersey backed the agency’s request for aid in a letter sent to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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“The Port Authority has continued operating to get urgently needed goods and supplies into the region, and essential workers safely to where they need to be to address those most impacted by the crisis,” the letter said. 

The capital projects are expected to pour $20 billion into infrastructure projects in the next five years and generate more than 100,000 local jobs, the letter said.

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Leadership at the Port Authority emphasized multiple times on Thursday that the agency is financially self-sufficient, and reaps most of its profits from the airports, during normal times. 

“We don’t receive recurring funds from federal or state governments,” Cotton said. 

But the regional agency is far from the only stakeholder hoping to squeeze into the next federal relief bill — if there even is another stimulus bill. The House passed a $3 trillion package, dubbed the HEROES Act, last week that includes hundreds of billions in aid to state and local governments as well as another direct payment to Americans and an extension to beefed-up unemployment payments. While it sets the framework for debate in the Senate, some economists reportedly expect the final bill to be half what Democrats have asked for. 

It’s still too soon to say what parts of the Port Authority’s capital project would face the chopping block if the federal aid doesn’t come through, Kevin O’Toole, chairman of the agency’s board of commissioners, said on Thursday. 

“I think it’s too premature to venture into what programs would have to be extended, cut, abridged. We’re looking at all kinds of options,” O’Toole said. 

Nevertheless, Cotton said its infrastructure work was “profoundly threatened.”

The agency also announced it had formed eight working groups to come up with new operating protocols in light of the crisis, including one solely focused on the airports. An additional three crosscutting working groups are looking at strategies to improve health and safety across its facilities, which aside from the airports includes bridges and tunnels, the PATH train system, Penn Station and the midtown Port Authority Bus Terminal.  

The crisis may have torn a major hole in regional airport revenues, but New York’s airports don’t face any kind of long-term existential crisis, said Jorge Roberts, CEO of AvPorts, which operates many of the smaller, general aviation airports around the tri-state area, including Westchester County Airport. 

“Pre-crisis, the demand for airport capacity in New York City outstripped supply,” Roberts said. It’s one of the reasons why the area’s reliever airports in New Jersey, Long Island and New Haven were so busy. “JFK needs more gates, Newark was already at capacity.”

When and how New York City’s airports will begin to recover remains a formidable question. 

“We are at the bottom of the shaft, and we are about to start coming out in terms of restrictions,” Cotton said on Thursday. “When you are down at the bottom of the shaft it’s hard to see the light.”



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