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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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After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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The Moody Center, a $338 million, 530,000-square-foot multipurpose arena at the University of Texas at Austin, celebrated its topping out on Tuesday.
With the final beam placed, the arena's steel-frame structural phase—which involved more than 5.3 million pounds of steel—is complete.
"This past year has been full of unprecedented events, not to mention weather challenges, and yet the women and men working on this project continue to deliver," Moody Center General Manager and Senior Vice President Jeff Nickler said in a press release.
To celebrate the topping out Oak View Group, the development and investment firm behind the Moody Center will affix a tree to the final beam in keeping with the time-honored tradition.
The practice dates back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites, which involved placing a tree atop new buildings to appease tree-dwelling spirits displaced during the construction process, according to the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers in Washington D.C.
After the steel-frame structure phase, the development will move on to enclosing and finishing the interior of the Moody Center.
The arena is set to open next April and already has some major acts scheduled for its inaugural year, including The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Killers. It will replace the 43-year-old Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center and serve as the home of UT's men's and women's basketball games, among other sports and community events.
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