Though the global pandemic crippled the travel industry and suddenly interrupted operations at San Francisco International Airport, a top official at the gateway to the Bay Area shared measured optimism that conditions may improve.
Airport Director Ivar Satero detailed how the health crisis pummeled business at the airport during a South San Francisco City Council meeting Wednesday, March 25.
Passenger traffic plummeted by 98% immediately after the spread of the coronavirus and is currently down about 71% from normal levels, said Satero, who expected some surge in travel as health conditions allow over the rest of the year.
“I am hopeful. I know there is pent-up demand for travel, so I am anticipating a pretty good bump in the next six months,” Satero said.
He balanced that expectation against an acknowledgement that vaccine availability and potential virus mutations could determine when and if people are able to return to flying.
Additional questions linger over how sustainable the expected uptick is also, and figures offered by Satero suggest the airport may not recapture the full extent of the travelers lost until about 2025.
To that end, he said the airport accommodated roughly 58 million passengers in 2019 and charts tracking growth models show those levels may not be high again for a few years.
A contributing factor to the slow recovery is that while the leisure travel industry may soon spike, a return of business travel is likely to experience a more gradual return to levels known before the pandemic, Satero said.
He said travel experts have some historic precedent to reference from when projecting a recovery, noting that the travel industry took nearly 10 years to bounce back after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We are doing a lot of working around trying to understand what our future looks like,” he said.
The reduction in the amount of trips taken has been apparent on the airport’s bottom line too, according to Satero who said revenue is down about 23% from normal.
The lost income is balanced by government relief and Satero anticipated the airport could receive almost $500 million over three rounds of financial aid, with more money available to small businesses in the food service and retail industries.
Satero said airport officials have tried to make the most out of the flexibility offered by the reduction in flights, and are planning runway work to complete a capital improvement program.
While previous similar projects caused travel logjams, Satero said no flight delays are expected with the next round of runway improvements.
For his part, South San Francisco Mayor Mark Addiego expressed his appreciation to Satero for giving such a detailed analysis of the airport’s past troubles and future prospects.
“What happens at SFO is really integral to the economy of South San Francisco so these projections are important to us as we look at our future,” he said.
In a related item during the meeting, councilmembers agreed to return $784,812 in unspent money to the airport to finance a home noise abatement program.
Officials said the city program designed to help residents frustrated with airplane noise pollution soundproof their homes has lost momentum over recent years.
And after financing an early surge of applications, South San Francisco officials said the money initially paid by the airport would be better folded back into a larger fund used by the airport to facilitate a similar program.
“We want to continue working collaboratively with the airport and turn over administration and the remaining funds,” Christina Fernandez, assistant to the city manager said.
In other business, officials also agreed to launch the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Center, in collaboration with San Mateo County officials.
Roughly $2 million in city funds and $200,000 in county contributions will go toward establishment of a new center located in downtown South San Francisco where small business owners and eventually residents can go to get financial assistance.