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Santa Fe airport in a holding pattern

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Santa Fe Regional Airport has been very quiet since the COVID-19 outbreak hit New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

It could be a hard landing for the Santa Fe Regional Airport as it attempts to navigate its way through the economic hurdles of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As tourism in Santa Fe and northern New Mexico has ground to a halt due to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s stay-at-home order, the number of passengers at the airport has also nose-dived.

The airport went from 21,213 total passengers in February to 502 in April, a 98% decline in the two-month span.

When combined with private flights, which comprise the vast majority of flights in Santa Fe, ridership is down around 40% for all operations.

That becomes clear when you arrive at the airport, where runways and gates remain empty for hours at a time. Airport Operations Manager John Dickinson said there are usually multiple planes moving around at any given time.

The airport serves two commercial airlines, American and United. Dickinson said that in the early days of the pandemic, flights were being canceled because there would be no passengers to board, although he is not sure exactly how many have been canceled.

Oscar Dozal, manager for American Airlines in Santa Fe, said the decision to cancel flights usually comes down to operations and is not always an indication of ridership.

American announced in January plans to create a direct flight between Santa Fe and Los Angeles that was set to start in April. The pandemic, though, put a stop to the launch of the route, at least temporarily.

“The L.A. flight is not scheduled yet,” Dozal said, adding that passengers transfer in Phoenix before continuing to Los Angeles.

Plans for adding other direct routes have also been put on hold, Dozal said.

The reduction in the number of flights directly impacts the finances of the airport, which collects fees every time a plane lands or checks into a gate.

“We can’t bill for a plane that never comes in,” said Bobbie Huseman, the airport’s administrative manager.

Huseman said the reduction in flights has had a direct negative impact on airport revenues.

As a result, the airport is not exempt from the economic troubles facing most other departments in the city of Santa Fe government. City officials announced May 18 they expect a $100 million deficit across all city budgets for the next fiscal year.

Finance Director Mary McCoy said the airport itself is projected to have a $1.4 million deficit, around 40% of the airport’s total budget, for fiscal year 2021.

Like hundreds of other city workers, all eight airport employees are currently on furlough for part of the work week, usually totaling four hours per week.

City Councilor Chris Rivera, who serves on the city’s Airport Advisory Board, said May 19 that while exact cuts need to be determined, any future cuts to the airport will most likely also fall on employees.

“Other than personnel, there’s not really a whole lot (to cut),” he said.

Rivera also said the Airport Advisory Board has struggled to stay current on information regarding the airport due to technological issues with meeting online.

“We’ve had a difficult time with that,” Rivera said. “We probably haven’t had an Airport Advisory meeting for three months.”

Also at risk is the $9.5 million the city received from the state in 2019 to make much-needed renovations to the airport’s terminal and parking lot. The renovations, once completed, would increase the number of parking spaces and add 10,000 square feet to the terminal for an additional gate and more seating areas.

The renovations are currently still in the planning stage and ground is not expected to be broken until 2021. Huseman said they have spent around $500,000 so far, mostly on the design process.

However, as the state reels from its own economic crisis caused by plummeting oil and gas prices, Lujan Grisham has said planned increases in spending will have to be cut in order to balance the budget with declining revenues. This has left some public bodies fearing the state could take back previously awarded funding.

This could include funding for the Santa Fe Regional Airport.

“We’ve heard those rumors,” Huseman said. “It’s definitely been put out on the street that that’s a possibility.”

Huseman and Rivera said the renovations could not be completed without state funding.

Those renovations, Dickinson said, are necessary during the pandemic for the health of the airport, so that passengers have enough space to socially distance themselves.

“It would be very beneficial for this airport,” he said.

Dickinson also said any reduction in operational funds would hurt the airport, especially if the number of flyers returns to pre-pandemic levels.

However, when that will happen – if ever – remains a mystery.

“It’s like throwing dice in the dark right now,” Dickinson said.

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