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Airport officials strive to help employees, concessions

Thursday, October 15, 2020 by Jo Clifton

In December 2019, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, or AUS, hosted more than 778,000 passengers, many of whom bought snacks, coffee, lunches and books, as well as gifts for their friends and relatives. By April 2020, that number had plunged to just 24,643, thanks to the coronavirus. The 96.6 percent decline in passengers weighed heavily on airport management and on the employees working to supply all of those beverages, snacks and trinkets passengers require.

The sudden reduction in funding affected not only the airlines but the many concessions that line the 34-gate concourse. On Tuesday, airport CEO Jacqueline Yaft and Mookie Patel, chief revenue and finance officer, told City Council what they had done to help the employees and the concessions.

At the direction of Council, airport executives estimated what they would need and what they could afford to spend helping the concessions after reducing regular airport expenditures. Initially, AUS management estimated they would need to provide $9.5 million in financial relief through rent deferrals. For April, May and June, Yaft explained, the airport provided $4.5 million in rent deferrals. After that, AUS granted $8.6 million in abatements, which do not have to be repaid. In addition, the airport is waiving administrative fees through the end of the year.

City staffers also offered assistance to the businesses in applying for such programs as the Paycheck Protection Program, Patel said.

Airport staff were unable to give an estimate of how much each concession pays in rent, saying each contract is negotiated separately, with most concessions operating under an umbrella agreement with one of three well-known operators: Delaware North, HMS Host, and Paradies Lagardère. There are 50 concessions altogether, with Delaware North the largest. There are also seven independent concessions, including the XpresSpa, Fara Café and James Avery.

Patel said the array of concessions, which “has taken us many years to put together,” offers travelers a sense of Austin. For example, visitors may eat at the Salt Lick, Amy’s Ice Creams, Ruta Maya, the 24 Diner, or Vino Volo.

As a result of the loss of business, the number of badged employees fell from 6,000 to 4,700, a 21 percent reduction. Concession employees made up 11 percent of those, according to AUS numbers. The airport generates about 74,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to figures supplied by the Texas Department of Transportation in 2018.

A Council resolution sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza asked AUS leadership to convene a concession workers stakeholder working group to help develop recommendations for a right-to-return-to-work program. Being careful not to create conflict with federal law and bond covenants, the working group came up with a way to help the furloughed employees eventually return to their jobs. Patel said Delaware North complies with the rehiring request through a collective bargaining agreement. The other two concessionaires agreed to administratively implement a program to rehire furloughed workers and report that back to AUS.

Some passengers are beginning to return to air travel, but it will not be a swift recovery. Bryce Dubee, with the AUS public information office, noted that while the number of passengers was down 96.6 percent in April compared to the previous year, August numbers were down only 72 percent from the previous August.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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