Chattanooga Airport getting $5 million in COVID-19 grant as air traffic stalls

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Long term parking at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Monday, May, 4, 2020, is nearly empty in this view looking north. The airport has seen a 90-percent drop in passenger boardings as of recent.

Chattanooga Airport expects to receive more than $5 million in federal money to help cover expenses as people stay away from air travel amid the COVID-19 outbreak, officials said Monday.

Passenger boardings in Chattanooga were down nearly 95% in April from a year ago with daily departures by the airlines plunging from 28 to as few as five on some days.

Terry Hart, the airport's chief executive, said the $5 million is part of the stimulus money passed by Congress and for use by airports as revenues have dried up from airlines, car rental companies, parking and concessions.

To help meet expenses, Hart said his pay was cut 10% and other staffers took a 5% reduction. Also, the airport eliminated the vice president of operations post, he said.

"That got us down to where expenses are meeting revenues each month," he told the Airport Authority. "We're OK right now. There's a plan in place."

But, he said, a budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, won't be brought before the airport board until next month as officials wait until they know more of what's ahead.

"We'll hold off on the budget as late as we can to have as much information as we can," Hart said. He's expecting the new budget to be lower than this year.

Hart said airlines and car rental companies also are asking for cost abatements from the airport. He said some airports are giving abatements, though a lot are not.

Dan Jacobson, the Authority's chairman, said he'd be cautious about taking such actions, especially with uncertainly about how long air travel is stricken moving ahead.

"I think we wait and see," he said, adding that treating tenants with consistency and uniformity is important.

Airport Vice Chairman Jim Hall said he wouldn't support abatements unless the tenant is proactive in terms of the safety of people who use the airport amid the coronavirus.

Airport attorney Kirby Yost said a lot of her firm's clients are looking at the same issue, and those are handled on a case-by-case basis.

Airport Authority member Mike Mallen said if some relief is considered, the tenant should be in compliance with all parts of the lease.

Yost said the airport can adopt rules and regulations without formal lease amendments.

No decision was made by airport officials on the abatement issue.

Hart said he's seeing future bookings by travelers increase week over week of late, though the uptick is small.

He said he's expecting a slow rebound in air traffic in general.

"I don't think this is months," Hart said. "Unfortunately this could be years. I think we'll feel the impact for quite some time."

The airport's CEO said the major airlines will look much different and smaller moving forward as they've already begun retiring some of their airplanes. Four small carriers have shut operations or filed for bankruptcy, he said.

"I think that trend will continue," Hart said.

Delta Air Lines has cut flights leaving Chattanooga for Atlanta from 10 to two a day, he said. Allegiant Airlines just returned to flying from Chattanooga after a six-week hiatus, and United is offering service only three days a week from Lovell Field, Hart said.

"Obviously, it has been quite challenging on the air carrier front," he said.

Hart said the airport has implemented a lot of cleaning procedures and disinfecting around the terminal.

"We'll continue to move forward in those aspects," he said.

Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.