"Austin-Bergstrom International Airport expects more busy days ahead for airline passengers. Tomorrow through Monday, the airport expects an estimated 28,000 passengers will fly in and out of the airport each day and expects these trends to continue regularly on Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and Mondays. The busiest time is early in the morning, before 8 a.m.," the airport said in a March 30 statement.
ABIA officials released the operational update following a weekend that saw nearly 9,000 passengers March 27 and more than 8,200 passengers March 28 pass through ABIA gates before 8 a.m. alone. The airport experienced backups at rental car return lines and Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, and also issued a fuel shortage alert asking airlines to fly into Austin with extra jet fuel.
The steady stream of busy travel days is putting the airport in position to shatter its single-year travel record by the end of 2022. With air travel continuing its pandemic bounce-back, around 20 million passengers are now expected to pass through ABIA gates this year—a 15% jump from the previous record set in 2019.
For passengers heading directly to the main terminal, ABIA officials said drivers and passengers should use either the arrival or departure level depending on congestion levels. The airport is also advising travelers to budget extra time ahead of their flights.
"To help manage expectations and prepare passengers for a busier than ever [ABIA], the airport recommends that travelers only bringing carry-on luggage arrive at least two hours before their boarding time for domestic flights and three hours before their boarding time for international flights," airport officials said in a statement. "Travelers checking luggage, traveling with small children or in a large group, and those flying out of [ABIA] for the first time in a while, should give themselves extra time in addition to the two- and three-hour recommendation to make it to their gate on time."
ABIA is moving forward on an extended expansion project that will add new gates, checkpoints and other facilities to the aging airport facility, although major updates are still years away.
In response to this week's trends, airport officials have met with both TSA representatives and the management of its rental car center. The airport said it continues to partner with TSA on improving passenger screening times and has requested an after-action report from the rental center about the March 28 backup.
An airport representative previously said the car drop-off issue was caused after one rented car stalled out at the return center. A staff member told the driver to leave their car for check-in, which prompted other drivers to follow suit and leave a series of empty cars parked along the curb.
Fuel storage fears
While the airport said its fuel shortage did not affect any flights or customers this week, the issue could come into play more often as passenger counts jump. Most large airports keep up to one week's worth of extra fuel, but ABIA said it only has space for two to three days' worth.
"We expect fuel shortage alerts will be issued with more regularity so long as demand outpaces supply," airport officials said in an email.
The most recent fuel alert was lifted March 30. However, plans for an expanded fuel storage site are temporarily on hold and could be pushed back further by city officials next week.
The airport's proposal to build a new jet fuel storage facility on its western edge off US 183 has prompted community members to push back on various aspects of the project. Among those worries are the location's close proximity to several homes and fears over potential environmental contamination or larger-scale accidents.
Many have also referenced concerns of environmental racism given the history of a former gasoline tank farm site in East Austin that caused long-term health problems for residents in the surrounding area before its closure.
"The cleanup of the East Austin farm tanks was only recently completed in 2008. The lives damaged and lost from this preventable decision can never be repaired," District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes wrote in a March 18 council message board post.
In December, action from Fuentes paused progress on the new fuel facility's construction to allow for more public meetings on the topic. A resolution she is bringing to council's April 7 meeting could once again halt the process. If approved by council, the latest direction would direct airport planners to find at least three alternate fuel storage sites for ABIA's expansion and continue community involvement.
"There needs to be corrective action and new expectations for the public engagement process. We are at a pivotal point," Fuentes wrote.
An open letter from residents and community groups expressing opposition to the project may be viewed here.