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Sunport predicts $31 million loss as activity plummets

Luggage carousels sit idle at a deserted Sunport at the end of April. The airport has seen a huge decrease in traffic due to the pandemic. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico may be on a path to reopening from its COVID-19 shutdown, but its largest airport is anticipating fallout for years to come.

The director of the Albuquerque International Sunport said Wednesday that current forecasts anticipate $31 million in total revenue losses through fiscal year 2022 as the airline industry recalibrates after a catastrophic disruption to its business.

And Albuquerque officials say it is too soon to know how much of the flight activity lost in recent months will return to the marketplace.

Airlines, reeling from reduced demand wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, have made dramatic flight cuts. The Sunport is down to an average of 41 scheduled departures per day, compared with 73 the same time in 2019, and many of those are still being canceled in real time, a spokeswoman said.

Sunport passenger traffic has plunged to “essentially nothing,” Albuquerque Aviation Director Nyika Allen said, noting that Transportation Security Administration screenings were 94-96% below normal in April.

The pandemic has sent the Sunport backward after years of growth.

Passenger traffic had risen to 5.4 million in fiscal year 2019, up from 5.3 million in fiscal year 2018 and 4.8 million in 2017.

Numbers were trending slightly up again in 2020 until March.

“The Sunport has kind of gone from a rising star in the city and in the state to now looped (into) all sorts of uncertainty with the rest of us,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said during a media briefing with Allen Wednesday.

Unlike most city facilities, the airport is responsible for generating its own revenue and is not reliant on Albuquerque’s general fund.

Allen said the airport has managed to rebound – albeit sometimes slowly – after several hits in the past 20 years, and there are resources available to weather this particular crisis. The Sunport is getting $19.7 million in federal coronavirus relief money, and she said the airport has other ways to overcome the rest of the projected shortfall, such as leasing some of its land.

But the long-term impacts on service remain unknown.

Right now, airlines benefiting from federal CARES Act relief money are required to maintain a minimum level of air service around the country. Those obligations carry through September.

But Allen said questions remain about what happens when that period ends, noting that even the airlines themselves are still evaluating how to move forward.

“I think (every) airport director is … nervous about their service levels and where they have access to,” she said. “I think that is going to be something we take day by day.”

As airlines begin restoring routes, Keller said, Albuquerque may have an edge over some smaller communities since it is the only large airport within a thousand square miles.

But Allen said the Sunport’s service level ultimately depends on local travel activity and how much it increases in the months and years to come.

“As long as we continue to come back and fly, how many flights we have and the destinations they go are directly determined by the people of this community,” she said.

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