Chicago airports see rebound in revenue after significant losses in 2020

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO — While millions of Americans stayed home during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, airports in Chicago and across the country lost key revenue that is instrumental to keeping air travel stable.

When air travel came to a screeching halt at the start of the pandemic, few knew how quickly it would come back.

“I’ve worked for United Airlines for 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” one United employee said.

The average passenger may be unaware, but every time someone takes a flight, a ‘passenger facility charge’ is paid as part of the overall price.

In Chicago, it’s $4.50 per flight, a figure that quickly adds up for airports.

WGN Investigates obtained records that show O’Hare and Midway airports saw their PFC revenue drop by $154 million in 2020.

“When you’re trying to run an airport, those passenger facility fees added onto every ticket are really critical. The airports rely on them to modernize to keep the facility going. It really took the federal government to step in to replace a lot of that revenue. It’s been a tough year,” Joe Schwieterman of the DePaul University Transportation Center said.

Thanks to federal help, Chicago airport officials insist that the $154 million loss won’t impact the massive O’Hare terminal expansion plan now underway. In fact, some work on a runway was completed early at a 29 percent savings because lighter volume allowed crews to work during the day.

Now, just 16 months after COVID grounded people and planes for more than a year, several airlines have already returned to profitability, and the number of cities served by Chicago airports is back to where it was pre-pandemic.

“In the depths of the pandemic, there were probably some doubts, ‘Should we slow these projects down?’ Now that we’ve seen the V-shaped recovery, it’s full steam ahead,” Schwieterman said.

As for the people-mover train that has been out of service for nearly three years, airport officials said the contractor is now projecting it will be fully operational sometime this fall, 2.5 years after the project was supposed to be finished.

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