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MAC: Use the CARES Grant for Overflight Risk studies

In legislation surpassing 2,000 pages, the U.S. Congress enacted complex grants and appropriations totaling more than $2 trillion in "economic relief for American families and businesses who are hurting through no fault of their own" because of COVID-19 and the quarantines, travel restrictions, infections, treatments and deaths it engendered.

The monies to support Airports and Airlines -–Grants for worker retention and essential air travel --quickly implemented Applications and Rules for proportioning the amounts resulted in $125 million being granted to the Twin Cities Metro Airports Commission (MAC) in April 2020.


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MAC might use $41 mllion of Federal Grant dollars for airline bailouts

On Tuesday afternoon, 8 September, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) Operations, Administration and Finance Committee passively listened to MAC's Finance Director, Atif Saeed, recap a Staff Memo to the Committee. In effect, it was a proposal to rebate or reduce rents and fees paid by airlines using the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in 2020 by "up to $41 million!"

“A steep drop-off in air travel since the start of the pandemic ... prompted airlines to ... scale back. As of August (2020), passenger volumes remained [sic] about 70% below 2019 levels, an improvement from April, when they were down 95% year-over-year.” according to the MAC's Public Relations officer, Pat Hogan, as quoted last Friday in a Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal article by Dylan Thomas.

Staff presented formulae, discussed with other airports, they used to decide amounts per airline aided. The $41 billion is about 30% of the MAC's $125 million Federal CARES grant received in April. U.S. airlines were already given $25 billion for passenger air carriers, and $4 billion for air cargo carriers. The stimulus monies were to allow airports and airlines to continue payroll and provide essential services during the pandemic. 

Delta Airlines dominants flight operations at MSP: in 2019, Delta operated 70-some percent of MSP flights (about 430,000 operations or 215,000 flights).  The size and weight of the aircraft also figures in the "rents and fees" and Delta paid more than 70% of the gate leases and landing fees last year. Want to guess where the rent and fee reduction idea started?

Our first reaction was "been there before."   MAC reduced in-financial-duress-airline's fees and rents in 2008; later, with NWA in bankruptcy, banks and other creditors were glad to get the money. We can't say that the deal benefited MAC or Minnesota though.

Our second thought was: a lot could be learned by funding health, safety and environmental impact studies. With 1% of the MAC's $125 million CARES Grant (stimulus), quantitative information about the real costs of MSP operations off-site could be produced --and thought about in the elections; maybe a really busy hub airport in the middle of a city isn't all that good a long-term plan.

SMAAC's goal is to get a discussion going that includes public health, the environment and whatever Pat might have meant by "being competitive."  During the long, teleconferenced FAO meeting, SMAAC and several Chambers of Commerce weighed in on changes at the airport because of COVID-19. Remarks by President Spensley will be reported separately.


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Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security(?) Act

Dylan Thomas’ story 3 Sep 20 in the Minneapolis/St. Paul  Business Journal related the Metropolitan Airports Commission’s (MAC) Announcement regarding the Operations, Finance and Administration Committee (7 Sep 20) Agenda item suggesting the reduction of fees paid by the airlines at MSP International Airport in 2020. Staff proposed a $41 million giveaway from the “CARES” (Stimulus aid to airports) Act. Public discussion in advance of the  Committee Meeting seemed warranted.

A Memo was sent to the Journal suggesting a follow-up. SMAAC will suggest more appropriate eventual distribution of the CARES grant funds as the MAC plans for a recovery of air transportation services in the Twin Cities next year or later.

There is a likely correlation between MSP overflight operations and the harshness of  the COVID-19 pandemic infections in South Minneapolis. We suggest that at least $1 million be used to conduct independent health-risk studies in the several neighborhoods overflown using new routes during the last 8 to 10 years. The routes undoubtedly added to air pollution (not quantified) and increased health risks (based on epidemiological studies under similar conditions elsewhere.)

After 9/11 and after the recession of 2008, air traffic changes occurred during the recovery of air transportation services that are not accounted for as to economic impacts (as well as public health) in the Twin Cities and for the State economy. These changes were not, apparently, planned or documented in successive plans.

While the Board will be following the discussion, a final recommendation or advice on the particulars of refunding or reducing airline fees may be delayed until the Full Commission meeting.

If the Journal does follow up, the public will see our comments for all five paragraphs of the story. We request permission to publish the story at our web-site. Meanwhile, the Memo is circulating among members for comment as below:


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Re-Organization Plan

The 2019 FAA Re-Authorization Law made key changes to plans and budgets for Next Gen deployment, aircraft and airport GPS navigation, and airport improvements (for government fiscal years, Oct to September). The changes complicated both planning for changes in FAA en route and airport operations and short-term planning for specific-airport operations.

There was a further unwise turn away from environmental impact reviews by Federal agencies as a practice for Federal operations, lands, and buildings and as a planning or regulatory responsibility. Meanwhile, several years of changes in flight routes and airport operations left airport communities facing disruptive overflights but lacking EAW/EIS or any other tools for quantifying the impacts

Then, in 2020, COVID-19 dropped the demand for non-essential air travel and changed airport and airline operations perhaps for ever --and the pandemic stresses the airline business model in previously unimagined ways.

The public has two direct ways to intervene: national political awareness and local action.

National politics and aviation policy change needs a national, or at least very broad-based, citizen organization. We are calling this "" for now.

Locally, whatever was built and however it was used isn't working as planned. It should be rare to want to "put Humpty-Dumpty together again." To expect a steep recovery of 2019-like service at MSP or at any airport is awfully foolish --and certainly will not apply at every airport. Look at what happened after 9/11 and after the recession of 2008. For this,  will continue.


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Meeting with Governor's Office Aug 5th -- MSP Airport Overflights

Last January, three Minneapolis legislators and three SMAAC Board Members met with Governor Walz' staff policy advisor on Transportation. A Power Point presentation had been prepared for the Governor connecting FAA and airline discussions in Washington with the extended delays in revising maximum hourly operations at MSP airport. Some of the discussions were probably back-channeled by the Republican majorities in the House Transportation and Environment Committees. 

We were supportive of the Governor's initiatives on GHG reduction from State operations and we were working with Rep. DeFazio and other Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to revive interest in reducing GHG emissions from commercial aviation operations at MSP and en route --which are government functions.

As the COVID-19 crisis grew, however, more than 4 of every 5 daily commercial flights were cancelled and the PBN/RNAV approaches and departures routes and runway use rates issues were lost, postponed or redefined. At MSP, the airports commission re-organized and increased its staff and budget and the now ten-year-old update of the MSP long-term comprehensive plan is a step further removed from public or legislative concern.  

SMAAC prepared a follow-up Presentation asking the Governor to explain State policy on two fronts:

A] Does the Executive Order requiring Minnesota State Departments and Agencies to reduce GHG emissions apply to the Metropolitan Airports Commission's operations at MSP and other MAC airports?

B] Since considerable GHG is released during jet flights in MSP airspace, more at busier hours, does the Governor anticipate plans will be made to reduce GHG and other pollution on a per flight basis at MSP?

It remains uncertain if the Governor, the MAC, the Met Council or State Departments (Health, MPCA, etc.) will see the presentations. SMAAC Forum has asked Governor Walz to participate in an on-line presentation and discussion on MSP operations and routes and GHG and particulate monitoring. Perhaps legislation will be proposed to include public health and safety outcomes in the MSP LTCP.

"I think we should persist." President Spensley said, "The overflight issues were made more relevant by the pandemic, since it is known that near-airport neighborhoods have more health risks, including respiratory disease and lung cancers, and COVID-19 infections likely harsher."

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MSP International Airport: Planning is Stuck Again

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic-- and the Federal disbursements to maintain essential air travel and stimulate the US economy in response --are complex and ever-changing. MSP International Airport (MSP) provides a window into the national air-travel situation,but too little to base a forecast about economic recovery on at this time.
A few years ago, the Airports Commission commissioned a "study of the economic and jobs impacts of MSP operations." At the time, there were 27,000 jobs on-site. Jobs included flight crews stationed in the Twin Cities and airline personnel working at MSP. The total jobs from air travel, off-and on-site jobs was estimated as 86,000. Residency, spending locally and paying State and property taxes for that 86,000 was not known, but assumed.
Today, passenger capacity is about 1.2 million departing) seats/year compared to 8.5 million in 2019. See Note below. About half the concessionaires have closed and the other have reduced hours. Operations remain somewhat concentrated in a few busier hours. 
There is some unknown variation in Federal jobs --and airline jobs --at MSP now because of reduced schedules; and, frequent policy changes in both cases about international travel restrictions.
Our point is: No one, particularly airlines, can forecast reliably before April 2021, best case. The Federal government needs an air-travel-recovery plan based on routes allowed and supported. With demand <40% of 2019 levels, tweaking runway-use rates and adding storage at MSP doesn't make much sense.
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U.S. Senate Bill: FAA Re-directed to Certify B-737 MAX Airworthiness

In the United States Senate, on June 17, 2020, the “Aircraft Safety and Reform Act” was introduced to effectively reverse provisions of the 2018 FAA Re-authorization that allowed Boeing leeway to decide that the B-737 MAX 800 and 900 are safe to fly.

Boeing and other component manufacturers had been delegated safety certification responsibilities that would now require detailed and continuous “surveillance and audit” by FAA.

The bipartisan move to regulate the design and manufacture of aircraft, engines  control technologies etc. curiously started in the Senate. FAA Re-Authorization includes policy and appropriations; routinely undertaken by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

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Airlines are "Re-Opening" in a high cost/risk mode.

At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and elsewhere, Delta is flying at "all (its) U.S. hubs" with capacity and service "significantly reduced". Delta has moved operations in Chicago to O'Hare from Midway and resumed flights to China. In Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, more flights between hubs in June than May to serve large metropolitan areas. This means, as in Chicago, no Delta service from a second airport in the same Metro area. 

In the case of Chicago-Minneapolis St. Paul air service, Sun Country and Southwest costs will increase at Midway and at MSP. Despite the risks of COVID-19 being spread, passengers and aircraft will more often share airport space at peak hours. Expensive work is underway at Seattle and Atlanta to handle Delta hub-to-hub-to-hub cross-country and international connections. 

More facility and operating costs, with fewer passengers per flight, means much higher fares and fewer jobs.

"In my opinion, there is little chance that enough affordable air service to sustain economic growth in the Twin Cities will return until (if) the pandemic ceases to limit seats per flight." said SMAAC.US co-founder Jim Spensley. "Some airlines are already  out-of-business and the prospects are that an average air trip will be longer and less comfortable again due to over-scheduled hours at busier hubs. 

"SMAAC warned the airports commission, the Governor who appoints the Chair and Commissioners, the Legislature and the FAA that MSP operations should be limited to 130-135 flight operations per hour, and that it would be healthier, safer and better for the economy if they were."

Sometime next year, a vaccine is expected to be available. By then, COVID-19 infections will be widespread with coronavirus mutations likely. international travel restrictions will continue for at least months. 

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