By Matthew Remynse, A.A.E., AAND President
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This quote by Charles Dickens truly defines how March 2020 was for airports in North Dakota. At our commercial airports, March had some of the highest days on record for boardings, with the potential to result in another record month on the way to possibly another record year. Unfortunately, after a pandemic was declared, COVID-19 stole the spotlight. A significant, devastating decline in travel followed, leading to some of the lowest days on record for our airports. According to the monthly statistics, the boardings at North Dakota commercial service airports were down 43 percent in March, 94 percent in April, and 86 percent in May. Additionally, our General Aviation (GA) airports began to see a significant loss in operations.
The drastic decline in boardings has left terminals hollow and parking lots empty, but the airports in the state looked for and have found a silver lining during this temporary down. With the support of our congressional delegation, the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was passed, which included funding for airports. As part of the CARES Act, airports that had a federal project were granted 100 percent of the cost versus the normal 90 percent, allowing the local share to be used for other purposes such as operational cost. Additionally, the CARES Act provided eligible airports with a grant that could be used for project or operational costs. Calculated by the FAA, using a congressional formula, the grant distribution amounts varied by airport. The downtime and additional funding has allowed our airports to move forward with parking lot maintenance, crack sealing, airfield markings, resealing terminal flooring, and conducting deep cleaning of the terminals.
An unanticipated benefit from the 100 percent grant funding was that it freed up a portion of the 5 percent the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission (NDAC) provides for federal projects. This allowed these funds to be used to jumpstart several projects that were not eligible to receive federal funding. Some of these great projects include a runway extension at Milnor, a fuel system at Washburn, SRE equipment purchases, and obstruction removal at several airports.
While there were some unanticipated benefits stemming from COVID-19, airports would like to be back to normal. To do this, airports must instill confidence in the traveler and assure them that it is safe to fly. This concept is not unique to our industry, as this process also happened following Sept. 11, 2001. In today’s world, commercial airports are cleaning well beyond pre-COVID levels, using more effective chemicals, placing social distancing stickers, installing plexi-glass shields, and offering hand sanitizer and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to travellers. At our GA airports, the volunteers are cleaning the pilot lounge often, placing social distancing signage, and offering hand sanitizer.
As we move into summer, airports are seeing more traffic and more traveling passengers. All across the state, airports will continue to adapt to meet the needs of passengers, pilots, and friends of aviation. The best of times will return, and the aviation community must work now to be prepared for when that time arrives. Travel will return, traffic will increase in lobbies, lounges, and parking lots. We need to be ready and ensure that we’ve planned the best ways for when the public wants and needs to travel again. In the meantime, there are a lot of projects going on at airfields and still plenty of GA activity, so as always, check the NOTAMS.