Some $40 million paid by airlines to operate at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport could be waived in an effort to offset a steep decline in air travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A subcommittee of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) on Tuesday considered a proposal to extend the financial break to airlines serving the Twin Cities market. A decision on the measure by the full commission is expected later this fall.
The move was opposed by a local citizens’ group, the South Metro Airport Action Council (SMAAC), which said some of the money should be used to study public health and safety risks related to air traffic over south Minneapolis. SMAAC is known for advocating for less aircraft noise in the metro.
SMAAC President Jim Spensley said a study could determine whether there’s a connection between flights hovering over south Minneapolis and COVID infections in the area.
He told the MAC’s Operations, Finance and Administration Committee that at least $1 million should be spent on such a study.
As the pandemic took hold during the normally busy spring break season last March, the number of passengers screened before their flights at MSP plunged 95%. While travel has improved somewhat since then, the aviation industry continues to struggle as the pandemic lingers.
Noting that other airports have embraced similar relief packages for airlines, MSP officials said the action would help preserve commercial air service to the traveling public in Minnesota. It will also ensure the airport remains “a competitive and attractive option as airlines consider resuming air service,” a MAC memo states.
The MAC, which owns and operates MSP airport, received $125 million from the federal government, part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) bailout.
The bulk of the CARES Act money will help the airport pay down debt, cover operating costs and move forward with several construction projects.
The money received by the airport from the CARES Act serves as a benchmark to determine the amount of relief that could be extended to the airlines, which typically provide 33% of the MAC’s total revenue.
But the waiver of up to $41 million in fees and rent won’t divert the funds the airport received from the federal government to the airlines, said MAC spokesman Patrick Hogan.
“We aren’t actually providing airlines CARES Act money. We’re just proposing to waive some costs airlines would otherwise owe us,” Hogan said.
The amount of relief to individual airlines would be determined by the number of passengers boarding at MSP. Delta Air Lines is by far the dominant carrier here, with Sun Country a distant second.