Federal officials will lavish nearly $25 million of coronavirus relief money to prop up the Memphis International Airport, even though the facility has struggled for years because far fewer people use it.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN-09) announced this week that Memphis International, along with three other airports, will receive Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act grants.
“This funding is prompted by a dramatic reduction in air travel,” Cohen said in an emailed newsletter to his constituents.
In a separate press release, Cohen said Memphis International will receive nearly $24.7 million. Meanwhile, the Memphis-based General DeWitt Spain Airport and the nearby Charles W. Baker Airport and Millington-Memphis Airport will receive $69,000 each.
“Air travel has been severely affected by the coronavirus outbreak,” Cohen said in the press release.
“There were fewer than 12 people on my last flight to Washington, and that included the crew. Our airports are hurting, and this funding will help them stay afloat until we get this pandemic behind us.”
As The Tennessee Star reported in February, taxpayers continue to subsidize the airport in other big ways, despite reports that fliers bypass the airport and choose other options.
Earlier this year, the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority Board of Commissioners approved a $1.5 million expenditure for a public art project there.
As The Star reported last year, the federal government gave the Memphis International Airport $15 million in taxpayer money for improvements and for economic development.
As The Star reported in 2018, the New York Times described the Memphis airport as “a glaring casualty of an airline merger that transformed the American aviation industry but cost the Mid-South’s most important city its status as a hub.”
As the Times went on to say, there once was a time when Northwest Airlines was the dominant carrier. Delta Airlines eventually gobbled it up. Delta then decided it only needed one hub in the south, in Atlanta.
“The decision cost Memphis almost two-thirds of its passengers,” according to the Times.
As The Star reported, federal taxpayers shelled out $43.3 million to improve the airport, via an FAA grant.
Exactly $28.5 million of that money reimbursed airport officials for reconstructing two taxiways. The remaining $14.7 million, meanwhile, went to rehabilitate the Memphis International Airport’s Concourse B.
Memphis International Airport spokesman Glen Thomas said at the time the airport qualified for the federal funding, even though it seemed like a ghost town.
These funds, Thomas said, involved federal Airport Improvement Program money. Under federal law the aviation system generates that money. That money is then apportioned back to airports based on their activity stats.
“In this case, to Memphis based on the amount of cargo enplaned here (we are the world’s 2nd busiest cargo airport) and the number of passengers enplaned,” Thomas said in an emailed statement to The Star at the time.
The Fed-Ex global hub is at the Memphis Airport.
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Chris Butler is an investigative journalist at The Tennessee Star. Follow Chris on Facebook. Email tips to [email protected]
Background Photo “Memphis International Airport” by Thomas R Machnitzki. CC BY 3.0.