Airport lobbyist: Federal help for Des Moines’ cash-short terminal project will have to wait

The Des Moines airport's passenger traffic is running 40% of 2019 levels due to the pandemic. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The most critical piece of Des Moines International Airport’s remaining funding for a new terminal will have to wait until the new Congress is sworn in and the coronavirus pandemic subsides, a national airport industry lobbyist told the Greater Des Moines Partnership Thursday. 

“All of it is going to be in the new Congress,” said Greg Cota of Airports Council International/North America. 

Des Moines airport Executive Director Kevin Foley has said much of the $200 million shortfall in the budget for the airport’s terminal and related improvements, a $500 million project overall, depends on getting Congress to allow local airports to raise a fee on tickets. Cota’s group supports raising the limit on the fees for the first time since 2000. 

The maximum fee is $4.50 per flight segment, with a limit of $18 per round trip.  

Cota told Foley and dozens of others on the Partnership’s annual lobbying trip, a virtual gathering this year for the first time, they shouldn’t hold their breath. 

“The airlines, of course, remain opposed” to the fee increase, Cota said. “We think, frankly, in the short term, as the airlines are looking to recover passengers, it’s going to be a hard sell on the Hill. I think it’s going to be hard to raise that federal cap in the short term because folks are looking at sales and it’s going to increase the cost of flying.

Cota said the group does think there is an opportunity to gradually increase the cap over time, “so as passengers come back to terminals that they are able to bring additional revenue to the airports to make those much-needed improvements.”

Airports face not only the expense of remodeling and expanding many terminals, but also new health measures and cleaning protocols. 

Cota’s industry group estimates U.S. airports need $100 billion in improvements. The estimate came before the conoravirus pandemic, which has increased cleaning and health-protocol expenses at airports already facing large expenses to update and expand their facilities.

Another speaker at the Partnership’s event, Mala Parker, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, said airports around the country lost 70% to 95% of their passenger traffic when the pandemic spread in April. Traffic has rebounded some since, but still is well below last year. That means both the airlines and the airports lost revenue from fares and fees. 

And it wasn’t just airports that suffered, Parker said. Rail business dropped 95% in April, subway ridership fell 90%, bus ridership fell 65%, and miles traveled on highways was down 47%, she said. 

Foley has said it could take five years for the Des Moines airport to regain the record level of passengers they had in 2019. 

In an interview, Foley said the Des Moines airport’s passenger traffic is about 40% of last year’s at this time, a big improvement since April. Nationally, airports are averaging 30% to 35% of their usual business.

Foley said Congress is expected to focus on keeping the airports in business, rather than expanding them, in coming months. Some airports already are running out of CARES Act support that was supposed to pay for staffing and debt service through the end of the year.

The Des Moines airport’s $23 million share should last through next March, Foley said.