Work in progress: Pandemic doesn’t slow airport project

One of the few things that hasn’t been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic is construction of a new terminal building for the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport.

Work on the 91,000-square-foot, $43.8 million terminal is proceeding according to plan and is expected to be complete in the fourth quarter of this year.

“ We are moving forward,” said airport Director Bryant Walker. “There’s no slow-down for us. … I think we had a rain day or two, that kind of thing, but nothing substantial right now, and no delays due to the virus.”

Shipments have been affected somewhat, but not enough to impact the construction schedule, he said. The shell of the building is nearly complete, the exterior has been sealed against the elements and most of the glass has been installed, though panels were installed in lieu of glass temporarily in some areas in order to be able to turn on the air conditioning so interior finish work could proceed, Walker said.

“ It’s a big enough project that we can run almost all the trades at the same time, so while we’re doing framing or electrical on one portion, we start moving forward and then the dry-wallers come in, then the finishers come in, and so it’s a gradual progression across the building of each of the trades,” he said.

Demolishing the old terminal and replacing the pavement on the runway side of the new terminal is a separate project. It was necessary to rebid that project because of the timeline for receiving Federal Aviation Administration funding, though that wasn’t a bad thing, Walker said.

“It turns out in our favor, just because of the circumstances right now with the additional funding that’s available,” he said. “There’s potential to get it funded at a higher level.”

The airport received a $1.8 million FAA grant through the $2.2 trillion CARES Act emergency relief package signed March 27, and in 2018 received $8 million in supplemental funding that will allow the project to re-include aspects that were removed due to budget constraints, Walker said. Those include a commercial curb canopy for airport transportation and parking lots improvements, he said.

The $1.8 million from the FAA is meant to help replace lost revenue resulting from the pandemic and resulting near standstill in commercial air travel, Walker said.

“With the number of flights down we’re not getting the landing fees, we’re not getting fuel flowage or terminal use fees, so that’s a pretty big hit to our revenue,” he said. “I mean, our budget is not massive, so the grant itself is actually a pretty good replacement. I doubt it will fully fund the lost revenues, but it’s going to be pretty close.”

Walker said passenger activity at the airport has dropped as much 93 percent since the start of the pandemic, though the flights that are running are seeing high load factors. He said the FAA has been a “tremendous partner” and that the agency continues to support the terminal and related projects. The decline in traffic has allowed the airport to catch up with maintenance and record keeping, and get the administrative offices ready for the move to the new terminal, Walker said.

No grand opening activities have been planned yet, though “we’re looking at our options as far as some sort of opening event,” he said. As far as when things will be make to normal passenger-wise, Walker said, it won’t be soon though he’s confident it will happen.

“We saw a 4 percent increase in aviation activity over the past week and a half I think,” he said. “Depending on the pace that some of the states open up, we may see an uptick in air travel. Personally I don’t think that the airports will see a return to their late 2019 numbers for anywhere between 18 to 24 months or something like that. I do think it will be gradual and I think it will be steady and I’m certain that we’ll recover in the shorter term.”

sclark@brownvilleherald.com