As enplanements at Mobile Regional Airport have taken a nosedive in recent weeks due to the COVID-19 crisis, one official seems optimistic about the future, despite the travel lull.
While the number of passengers getting on planes at the airport has dropped by 80 percent, overall activity at the airport has only fallen 60 percent, Mobile Airport Authority (MAA) President Chris Curry said.
The drop in activity has had a drastic impact on the rent the airports can charge, but while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seems to be stepping in on airport rents, Curry said Mobile’s carriers have agreed to put off rent payments for at least three months.
“They’ve asked us to defer payments for 90 days and we’ve accepted it,” he said.
How much rent an airline pays at Regional depends on how many flights they have and how much space they take up, Curry said. It comes out to where United Airlines pays about 25 percent of the rent charged to the airlines, while Delta and American each pay about 38 percent, Curry said.
“United pays less because they have fewer flights,” he said. “Delta has more flights and pays more.”
Right now, MAA doesn’t expect any layoffs to occur in the “near future,” Curry said.
“We have an interesting position,” he said. “If I have five aircraft flying into the airport on a daily basis, we will maintain the environment the same as if I had 25. It doesn’t affect my numbers greatly. We still have to maintain a safe environment.”
The authority expects to receive help from the FAA through funds provided by the recently passed stimulus package. Curry said MAA expects to see as much as $1.2 million in relief based on the number of enplanements. He said airports are set to receive $500,000 per 100,000 enplanements.
“We lobbied hard to make sure Alabama airports were included,” Curry, a member of the Alabama Aviation Association, said.
The crisis also shouldn’t impact the authority’s desire to move commercial operations to the Mobile Downtown Airport at the Brookley complex, Curry said. With a master plan still expected for the summer, the only change could be fewer in-person meetings to discuss it.
“We will find a way to do them remotely,” he said.
At the moment, no commercial flights are using the new downtown terminal and, for now, it will be hard for MAA officials to lure new airlines to the facility. Before COVID-19 created a major financial problem for airlines, MAA had been attempting to lure other low-cost carriers to the new airport at the Brookley Aeroplex.
“That business has been halted for now because we don’t know which airlines will be around when this is over,” Curry said.
However, Curry did say it’s possible the new terminal, which has a smaller footprint than the Mobile Regional Airport in West Mobile, could entice one of the city’s three “legacy” carriers to move to the smaller location in order to save money.
“It’s less expensive to operate out of the downtown airport because of fees and other charges,” he said. “It’s a smaller footprint so the space requirements will be different.”
Frontier Airlines has left the Mobile market sooner than expected due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Curry confirmed to Lagniappe.
Frontier was expected to stop flights to and from Denver International Airport later this month, but Curry said the airline flew for the last time from Mobile Downtown Airport on Friday, March 27 — some two weeks before its scheduled departure.
“They cut their schedule by 90 percent and only left 10 percent,” Curry said. “Since they were planning on leaving here anyway, they left two weeks early.”
In its last week in operation at the downtown airport, Frontier showed a 20 percent drop in its load factor, according to Curry. On Monday, March 23, Frontier’s A320s leaving Mobile were 60 percent full, and by Friday the planes were taking off at only 40 percent of their capacity.
Despite the lack of commercial activity at Brookley, the airport has become a popular parking lot for American Airlines planes awaiting maintenance at ST Aerospace, according to Curry. When contacted by ST, MAA officials allowed American Airlines to park the planes on which it plans to perform maintenance, overhauls and repairs. MAA made its shortest runway available for a fee.
“We’ve coordinated to shut that down for at least a 90-day period,” he said.
The runway has space to park 22 Boeing 777 aircraft and more than 10 narrow-body jets, like Airbus A321s. American Airlines is parking 20 of its 777s and 10 A321s on the runway now.
Curry said MAA has extended an offer to airlines to park unused jets at Bates Field as well, adding that Mobile Regional Airport would have space for 15 aircraft.
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