San Jose council ponders airport improvements amid budget talks

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As San Jose leaders consider budgets for transportation services, some are expressing cautious optimism about the recovery of air travel.

At a recent budget workshop meeting, San Jose Aviation Director John Aitken said the city is focused on the air transportation industry’s recovery. He said the Mineta San Jose International Airport is still well below its pre-pandemic passenger volume, but noted there are promising signs, such as the reduction in global travel bans, which are helping San Jose add a flight route to London next month.

“We’re still focused on growing passenger traffic and nonstop destinations,” Aitken said. “We still want to provide outstanding service and amenities.”

The city’s proposed airport budget for 2022-23 is more than $160 million, which represents a 12% increase over the previous year. The proposed budget includes additional jobs for strategic marketing and an autonomous wheelchair program. The city is also proceeding with precursor projects to set the stage for a new terminal, which Aitken said is anticipated to begin in the next few years. San Jose officials have been discussing budget priorities for different agencies over the past week.

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The San Jose airport suffered a significant drop in passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although travel began climbing up during the holidays last year, there is still concern about diminished business travel which the airport relies on for revenue. According to a recent industry report, this year San Jose is projected to bring in just over half of what it made in business travel revenue in 2019.

Derrick Seaver, president and CEO of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, told the airport has taken steps to make leisure and business travelers feel safe during the pandemic. A federal court recently eliminated the mask mandate on airplanes and public transit, but many travelers are still masking at San Jose’s airport.

“It is no secret that urban airports, like SJC, are often challenged with direct connection routes that incorporate (different) transit options,” Seaver said. “But SJC, along with the city, transit agencies and private sector leaders, are proposing a host of innovative solutions that will continue to make San Jose a premiere destination for business travelers in the future.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo acknowledged the airport has weathered rough times, but praised officials for exploring innovations like the autonomous wheelchair pilot program.

“The only complaint I hear about the airport is that it’s a long walk, particularly for seniors and those with disabilities,” Liccardo said during last week’s meeting. “It’s a really good thing we’re creating more options for them.”

Aitken noted the airport is also bringing back golf cart service to transport travelers and is using newer models that can accommodate the narrow concourse. The proposed budget also includes staffing for the airport connector—a project the city is considering to link downtown’s Diridon Station to the airport.

Dan Connolly, chair of the San Jose Airport Commission, said he’s skeptical there will be a swift return to pre-pandemic flight volume. Speaking in his personal capacity, Connolly noted leisure travel is on the upswing, but business travel is lagging, possibly because so many companies have switched to virtual meetings. He also noted some workers may be nervous about contracting COVID-19 as infections tick up again.

“Once that apprehensiveness fades perhaps we’ll have better attendance at conferences,” Connolly told “But I think we’re at least another year out before we start seeing these higher levels of business travel.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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