President & CEO, Tucson Airport Authority
In what ways has your organization had to “pivot” as the short-term impacts of the pandemic took hold?
Tucson International Airport (TUS) was on track to serve 4 million passengers in 2020, but instead welcomed only hundreds a day during the pandemic’s early stages. When the bottom finally came, it was far worse than anyone imagined. Airlines cut flights, concessions closed and the terminal became a ghost town. Our top priorities have always been safety, security and customer service, and the pandemic has crystalized those. We started the TUS CARES campaign and invested over a quarter of a million dollars in safety and cleaning enhancements. The measures included compliance with all CDC guidelines, social distancing messaging and signage throughout the airport and on shuttle busses, sanitizer dispensers, ultra violet lights to sanitize escalator and moving walkway handrails and elevator toe-kick buttons. We upgraded cleaning products and HVAC filters and mandated face coverings. We applied for and achieved the coveted gold standard accreditation from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council – only the 5th airport in the world to achieve it. We remain focused on best practices and innovative ideas and have made internal adjustments to closely manage and control spending.
What trends are you experiencing in your own industry, across the U.S. and globally, related to expected long-term impacts of the pandemic?
Before the pandemic, U.S. airlines were experiencing a “Golden Age” of sorts, with U.S. airlines seeing an average 2.5 million passengers each day. Air travel between the U.S. and foreign countries reached an all-time high with nearly 80 million foreign visitors coming to the U.S. in 2019. The pandemic has since forced several airlines to restructure or cease operations. The first nine months of 2020 reflected operating revenues down about 60%. The industry is facing a material toll on U.S. airline employment – some reports indicate a reduction between March and September of 90,000 airline employees. The rate of layoffs and furloughs is projected to continue unless additional federal relief is provided. Through the CARES Act, the nations’ airports were granted $10 billion through a FAA grant – the share that TUS and RYN is eligible for is $22.6 million. TAA is using CARES Act funds to offset revenue losses, assist airlines through reduced rent and the waiver of certain minimum annual guarantees with concessionaires.
From your business vantage point, what qualities put the Tucson region in a position to recover quicker economically and more effectively than other regions?
The pandemic has created pent-up demand for travel, and leisure travelers are seeking open spaces and a desirable climate. Tucson is well-positioned to attract these travelers with wonderful hotels and resorts and an outdoor atmosphere for those seeking exercise and scenic beauty. TUS and the airlines serving TUS are taking notice. Airlines are adding flights and increasing capacity at a faster rate than many other airports. Though TUS is nowhere near pre-pandemic flight levels, the percentage of returning passengers is outpacing airports in California and in the Northeast.
What are some of the attributes of Tucson that you personally enjoy?
Tucson is a lovely place to live because of the friendly people, climate and scenic beauty, the diverse culture, amazing art galleries and restaurants, and, of course, the outdoor lifestyle. It is also a place that people want to visit for the same reasons, while staying at our fine hotels and five-star resorts. Tucson is a region that has something for everyone.