Pre-pandemic, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was in the midst of a meteoric rise.
Since opening in 1999, the airport had tripled its passenger numbers. Between 2011 and 2019, it was the third-fastest-growing airport in the country. The Federal Aviation Administration ranked it second among medium-sized hubs in 2019 based on passenger boarding numbers (more than 8.5 million) and year-over-year growth (more than 10%), second only to Nashville International. That same year, ABIA finalized its 2040 Master Plan, a 20-year roadmap that included a project to double the size of its terminal and was intended to meet ballooning demand.
"We've seen unprecedented growth," Chief Operating Officer Ghizlane Badawi told Austonia.
Then the pandemic struck.
Last April, traffic plummeted 95%. According to the airport's latest activity report, passenger numbers were down by more than two-thirds year-over-year. "This crisis is basically the biggest disruption that we've seen in the aviation industry in this modern period of history," Badawi said.
ABIA had to respond immediately. In addition to reevaluating safety protocols, updating its HVAC system and implementing touch-less technology, the airport also had a financial crisis to confront. Although it is owned and operated by the city of Austin, ABIA does not receive any tax revenue and most of its costs are fixed. It received nearly $60 million as part of the federal CARES Act allocation, but officials still anticipate a 20% loss in revenue for 2020 due to the pandemic, according to a spokesperson.
Despite these challenges, ABIA is poised to bounce back. As the vaccine rollout continues and recipients grow more comfortable flying, the airport and airline companies report a leisure travel rebound.
On the up and up
In the months immediately following the start of the vaccine rollout, ABIA's future was still cloudy. But starting last month the airport has seen a direct positive impact of vaccine availability on travel. Leisure travel is returning to pre-pandemic levels at a rate faster than the national average, and Badawi anticipates business travel will resume next year and international travel by 2024, as foreign governments adjust their travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. "The outlook for the industry was uncertain last year, but this year we see the light at the end of the tunnel," she said.
ABIA has also benefited from the introduction of new routes, including 11 from American Airlines starting next month, including a nonstop flight from Austin to Nassau in the Bahamas that was announced Wednesday, and the recent announcement that Allegiant will establish a $75 million base at its South Terminal, creating 89 jobs and allowing for expanded flight options.
Jason Reisinger, managing director of global network planning for American Airlines, said this kind of investment is atypical. "I've been doing this for … closing in on 30 years, and I don't remember having an announcement where I announced 10 new routes (at the same time)," he said. "Especially in a city that's not a hub."
Austin's exceptionalism is due to what Reisinger called "quality growth," fueled by job creation and increasing affluence. American expects to be at 80% of its pre-pandemic capacity by next month, he said, but Austin could beat this projection due to the introduction of new routes.
In addition to attracting airline investment, the city's population growth also fuels the airport—and appears unhindered by the pandemic. Badawi cited the recent local expansions of companies such as Tesla and Samsung. "Personally, I think right now it's just like a pause with the pandemic," she said. "I think we're still going to grow."
Pandemic turbulence isn't entirely fleeting, however. The 2040 Master Plan remains in place but "may not be the same scope" due to COVID costs, Badawi said. Details of what the changes might entail are forthcoming, as the airport works out its next steps.
Air travel is also likely to be changed forever. Pre-COVID, passengers were focused on security and safety, Badawi said. Now she thinks they have a third concern: health. As a result, pandemic protocols, such as masking, sanitization, social distancing and improved ventilation are "here to stay," she said. "I don't see them changing at the end of the pandemic."
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Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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The Austin Police Department is searching for a man who is believed to be behind a series of robberies that is "sexual in nature and is escalating."
Three robbery cases that took place in North Austin within a 30-day period are being investigated by police, who report the victims all had similar descriptions for suspects in the case. The suspect is described as a 20-25-year-old Spanish-speaking Hispanic man, approximately 5'3, thin build, recently shaved with black hair. Police say he is known to typically wear athletic clothing and used a knife on each of the victims.
Here's a breakdown of the cases:
1. At 7:56 a.m. on Sept. 22 at the 1600 block of Rutland Drive, a woman was walking alone and returning from her child's school when a suspect walking by inappropriately touched her. The suspect then grabbed her by the arm, threatened her with a knife and demanded "her property."
2. At 8:10 a.m. on Oct. 11 at 1700 block of Colony Creek Drive, a woman was walking to her child's school when a man approached her with a knife and then demanded her personal items. The suspect then said he would return the items in return for sex.
3. At 11:03 a.m. on Oct. 13 at the 9300 block of Northgate Boulevard, a woman was with her child in the laundry room of an apartment complex when a man walked in performing a sexual act. The suspect demanded personal items from the victim, threatening to hurt the victim and take her child.
Police cautioned the public to walk without earbuds, stay alert and report suspicious activity to the police.
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