Travelers approach a security checkpoint inside Chicago Midway International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Department of Aviation)

New Federal Stimulus Includes Help for Airports, Airlines

A second round of federal stimulus money is headed for the nation’s airports and airlines as the industry continues to weather a pandemic that caused airline traffic to plunge 61 percent nationwide last year.

U.S. airports and concessionaires will split about $2 billion in federal funds meant to help stem revenue losses as part of the $900 billion coronavirus relief deal bipartisan lawmakers reached last month.

For airports, the new relief will be far less than the $10 billion they received in the CARES Act that Congress passed in March. Airports hope to learn their individual shares in the coming weeks.

The new law also directs $15 billion in additional federal aid to airlines. Under the latest round of aid, carriers said they would call back more than 32,000 workers who were furloughed in the fall. Airlines received $25 billion from the CARES Act.

United CEO Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart said their company plans to restore “temporary employment” to thousands of their out-of-work employees, according to CNN.

“This is certainly good news for our economy, our industry, and our airline—but it’s especially good news for those who have been without a paycheck, and we can’t wait to welcome them back,” Kirby and Hart wrote.

American Airlines laid off 9,000 of its workers in September. CEO Doug Parker thanked elected officials for restoring the Payroll Support Program.

“We appreciate the confidence Congress and the administration are placing in us by extending this additional support, and we proudly accept the responsibility that comes with it,” Parker wrote, according to the network.

Tumultuous year

The latest stimulus law comes as TSA released its 2020 national statistics showing the agency screened 324 million passengers, just 39 percent of the 824 million passengers screened in 2019.

Still, that percentage represents an improvement from March and April. On April 14, TSA reported its lowest travel volume of the year: only 87,500 passengers throughout all checkpoints nationwide, just 4 percent of the same weekday traffic in 2019.

During TSA’s historically busiest time of year, average travel volume per day between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve in 2020 continued to fluctuate between 24 percent and 61 percent of 2019 levels. The agency expects volume will remain well below pre-pandemic levels through most of 2021.

As a result of the drop in travel demand, major airlines were forced to furlough thousands of workers in 2020. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Through November, total passenger traffic at Pittsburgh International Airport mirrored the national average, down about 62 percent.

The leader of Airports Council International, an industry group, said aviation supports 2.7 million jobs in the U.S. alone.

“America’s airports are grateful for the continued support from Congress as they work to respond to the COVID-19 emergency and fight to survive this historic downturn in commercial aviation,” ACI President and CEO Kevin Burke said.

Pandemic precautions

As part of new public health standards, TSA modified security checkpoint procedures around the country to reduce physical contact and help protect workers and passengers.

The agency accelerated deployment of barriers and technology that enhance security and reduce touchpoints. Many of those modifications, which include self-serve Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) units at travel document checking podiums and Computed Tomography (CT) equipment for a detailed image of a carry-on bag’s contents, will remain in place well into the future, TSA officials said.

CAT units allow passengers to scan their own ID to complete the identity verification process and eliminate the need to hand IDs to a TSA officer. CT units give TSA officers the ability to review a 3D image of a passenger’s bags, thus reducing the need to search the contents.

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