Runway to recovery will be long for Reno airport; master plan work continues | nnbw.com
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Runway to recovery will be long for Reno airport; master plan work continues

Two weeks after the coronavirus pandemic shut down businesses in Nevada, Reno-Tahoe International Airport saw passenger counts drop 96%, says airport spokesperson Brian Kulpin.
Courtesy Reno-Tahoe International Airport

NEW CEO WAITING IN THE WINGS

After a four-month search, the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority has landed on the next CEO for Reno-Tahoe International Airport and Reno-Stead Airport — Daren Griffin, director of the Port of Portland’s PDXNext program.

“I am pleased to announce the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority has begun contract negotiations with Daren Griffin, of Portland, Oregon, to serve as the next President/CEO of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority (RTAA),” Carol Chaplin, Chairman of the RTAA Board of Trustees, said in a June 17 press release.

An executive at Portland’s airport for 16 years, Griffin will replace Marily Mora, who has served as the CEO of the Reno airport for the last seven years.

Mora announced her retirement last fall, effective June 30, 2020. She will officially step down when Griffin is in place.

“As we announce our new airport leader, it is important we honor our current CEO, Marily Mora, for her nearly 20 years of service to the airport, with seven years as CEO,” Chaplin said in a statement.

There is a specific sound Brian Kulpin used to hear throughout his workday. A sound that, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, rumbled inside the Reno-Tahoe International Airport like a steady drumbeat. 

“It’s a really odd feeling how much I missed the sound of a roller bag,” says Kulpin, vice president of marketing and public affairs at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. “Because that’s a sound of success in the airport.”

Since the COVID crisis shut down the country and grounded the airline industry in mid-March, the reverberation of people — from blue-toothed business travelers to wide-eyed tourists — flowing in and out of the Reno airport has faded. 

“Toward the end of March, beginning of April, we saw traffic fall off a cliff,” Kulpin said in a phone interview with the NNBW. “We’ve gone from 130 commercial flights a day to approximately 21. We went from 56 consecutive months of passenger growth to a 96% drop in passengers in a matter of two weeks.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

The sharpest decline came on April 15, when a mere 200 passengers entered the Reno airport; that’s a date that Kulpin said typically would see roughly 5,000 passengers.

It’s a microcosm of the heavy toll the pandemic is having on the airport industry due to travel restrictions, state shutdowns and cratering demand. Airports Council International (ACI), an airport trade association, anticipates the loss of more than 4.6 billion passengers and north of $97 billion in revenue for 2020.

Kulpin said the last time the sector was upended this severely was after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The difference was, after 9/11, we knew who and what our enemy was at the time,” Kulpin explained. “TSA came forward with new security measures and very visible things, and there was even a patriotic feeling that it was important to fly again — to show the terrorists that they didn’t win. And traffic steadily recovered.

“To see this drop now against an invisible enemy is a whole different challenge for the airport industry and the airline industry to recover from.” 

SAFE TRAVELS

In response to the global health crisis, Reno-Tahoe International has, like all airports and large-scale businesses, implemented social distancing measures and signage, enhanced its cleaning products and practices, added hand sanitizer stations and installed Plexiglas shielding at key counter areas.

In addition, all airport employees wear face coverings, and travelers are encouraged to, as well.

“What we’ve done is put together everything we can to make the traveler feel safe when they fly through our airport,” said Kulpin, noting the airport in May started a “We Move You, Safely” campaign. “We just wanted to get people thinking about flying again.” 

They are … slowly. With Nevada in Phase 2 of its reopening plan, and states across the country gradually lifting restrictions, the Reno airport has started to see “light at the end of the tunnel,” Kulpin said.

On June 12, the airport had its strongest day since the COVID slowdown, with about 1,500 passengers flying out and another 1,500 flying in, Kulpin noted.

Still, with Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak announcing June 15 the state is not yet ready to enter into Phase 3 of business reopenings due to a recent uptick in people testing positive for COVID-19, it’s unclear how quickly the airport will see large-scale crowds again.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Considering that uncertainty, the runway to recovery will be long for the Reno airport, which was experiencing record growth prior to the pandemic.

In 2019, the airport served nearly 4.5 million passengers for the first time in more than a decade, representing a 35% jump in traffic since 2014.

To that end, Kulpin said it’s “extremely difficult” to project how the rest of 2020 will shake out.

Though airlines received a $25 billion chunk of the federal CARES Act stimulus package, experts predict they will have to operate with fewer planes, flights and employees come Oct. 1, after restrictions related to that stimulus expire, according to the Wall Street Journal. Reno-Tahoe International in April received $30 million of that $25 billion grant. 

Not helping matters for the Reno airport is the fact that many of the region’s special events for summer 2020 that annually attract planeloads of tourists are canceled. 

Chief among them is Burning Man, the gathering 100 miles north of Reno attended by roughly 70,000 people. Kulpin said the airport typically saw $11 million in revenue from passengers flying in and out for the annual event, which he called “the single largest special event in terms of impact on the airport.”

“They would fill every seat for three days before the event and for three days after the event,” he added.

When asked about the airport’s importance, Mike Kazmierski, CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, said that tourism remains “a big part” of greater Reno-Tahoe’s economy.

“It’s much smaller than it used to be, but it’s still an important component,” he said. “And when you put gaming on top of tourism and you start talking about impacts on the economy, it affects our major operations like tax revenue for local governments, and the operations at the airport.”

‘MOVING RIGHT ALONG’

Despite the financial hit, Kulpin said the pandemic is not sidetracking the airport’s 20-year master plan, which maps out short-term, mid-term and long-term projects that include the development of new concourses, relocation of its cargo facilities, the building of a consolidated rental car facility, a runway improvement project, and more.

“In a strange twist, COVID-19 is now the best time to do a runway project,” Kulpin said of the three-year upgrade program, which started its $16 million first phase in August 2019. “We’re not interfering with a whole lot of traffic when you go from 130 flights to 21, so we’re moving right along.”

Last year, as passenger counts reached record levels, parking became an issue at the Reno airport. This culminated in the airport on Oct. 11, 2019, running out of parking spaces for the first time ever with no major construction going on. 

The planned consolidated rental car facility would free up parking spaces used by rental cars on the first floor of the parking garage. In the age of COVID, though, parking availability is not an issue — for now. 

With that in mind, Kulpin said officials are in the planning phase of that undertaking as they assess the “trigger point” for breaking ground on the consolidated rental car project. 

“When do you flip the switch and build a project like that?” Kulpin said. “We don’t know yet when traffic will come back, but we’ve got good people working on it.”


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