As air travel begins slow comeback, San Jose airport gets $9.6M for new marketing plan
The San Jose International Airport's parking lots sat mostly empty on March 31 and planes stayed parked at the gate as flights across the country have been reduced and cut in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Photo by The 111th Group aerial photography

For years, San Jose’s Mineta International Airport has bustled with throngs of globetrotting jet-setters from around the world. Millions of travelers pass through annually — more and more each year. That was until the coronavirus and nationwide stay-at-home orders brought its exponential growth to a screeching halt this spring.

But now, as travelers are cautiously venturing out again, the airport will have a nearly $10 million marketing budget to help coax passengers back onto planes.

Last month, the City Council approved a measure that will allow the airport to overhaul its marketing strategy and execution for up to $9.6 million over five years, with up to five different marketing firms.

The airport sought out qualified firms to take on the job in December — before stay-at-home orders and the threat of a deadly virus kept would-be passengers away from planes.

But the coronavirus “completely wiped out” demand for air travel, the airport’s Deputy Director of Marketing and Communications Scott Wintner told San José Spotlight.

Mineta International went from serving 26,000 passengers on a busy day, down to only a few hundred at its lowest point in May. The airport derives very little of its revenue from passengers — mainly from parking, concessions and ticket fees. Most of the money the airport makes comes from airlines who pay to lease ticket counters and gates for their customers, and runways and parking lots for their airplanes.

Nevertheless, the airport is “eager to get those passengers back,” Wintner said, adding that heading into the July 4th weekend an estimated 6,000 travelers passed through on Thursday. But with the threat of COVID-19 still looming, Wintner said making passengers feel like the airport is adequately responding to their health and safety concerns will be an important part of its future marketing strategy.

“A large part of what we need to do as an airport in the coming months is to listen to our travelers when they tell us what will make them feel comfortable returning to the sky,” Wintner said. “Naturally one of the first challenges the airport is going to face is explaining our health and safety procedures.”

For example, Wintner said the airport has installed plexiglass barriers at ticket counters, gate podiums and “pretty much everywhere you might encounter another human being,” including between sinks and urinals in public bathrooms. Airport staff are also adhering to strict cleaning regimens that exceed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, Wintner said. Those disinfecting routines include the use of an electrostatic sprayer to clean tight spaces such as keyboards and in between terminal seating.

Multilingual signs throughout the public areas of the airport encourage social distancing, covering coughs and sneezes and hand washing. The signage also promotes face coverings — which Wintner said is required of every passenger. The airport is providing face masks for those who don’t have them, but most people are already wearing some kind of face covering when they arrive, the airport official added.

“A large part of it is education,” Wintner said. “But we also rely on passengers to do their part and be respectful of each other, wear masks and observe social distancing recommendations.”

Before the pandemic hit, business was booming at the airport. In 2018 a record-breaking 14.3 million passengers traveled through Mineta International Airport. Last year that record was shattered when nearly 15.7 million people took off or landed in San Jose — its fourth consecutive year of adding a million or more passengers each year.

“That’s not sustainable, there’s no way we can continue to grow at that rate,” Wintner told San José Spotlight last year. “We’ve been one of the fastest growing airports in the country over the last five years.”

Projecting continued growth over the next 17 years of up to 22.5 million annual passengers, airport officials persuaded the City Council to approve an update to its master plan in January — including a major expansion of the airport and significant upgrades to its existing facilities. The planned expansion, which Wintner said is currently “on hold,”  includes a third terminal with 14 additional gates for departures and arrivals, plus parking lots with 11,000 short and long-term spaces and a hotel with more than 300 rooms.

Mayor Sam Liccardo previously said he hopes expanding San Jose’s airport will deter travelers from driving to San Francisco and reduces traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.“San Jose and Silicon Valley create and embrace new technologies that will lead the world to a more sustainable future,” the mayor wrote in a memo.

The expansion plan also includes extensive upgrades to the airport’s taxiways and runways, as well as improvements to its cargo and aviation operations and relocation of the belly-freight facility, maintenance buildings and a service vehicle fuel station. Airport officials are also planning improvements to the two existing terminals, 28 gates and other public areas.

But in the face of a global pandemic, the demand for air travel in and out of San Jose’s public airport first plunged by nearly 63% in March, then plummeted by 97% in April compared to the same months last year.

Still, the City Council in April forged ahead with the public hearing process and approved the airport’s master plan, including the expansion — presuming the demand for air travel will eventually return and grow at the same rate as before the coronavirus stopped it.

In June the number of passengers bounced back, but was still down 82% from last year. The expansion will be necessary “no matter how long it takes” for growth to rebound, Wintner said because the fundamentals of the market are very strong.

“The question is when — not if,” the demand for air travel at the airport will require another terminal and parking lots to accommodate it, Wintner said.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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