Port commissioner talks COVID-19 impacts

Sam Cho at SnoValley Chamber luncheon: Air traffic down 75 percent at Sea-Tac Airport.

Cargo shipping, air traffic and cruises coming through the Port of Seattle have all taken substantial hits during the coronavirus pandemic.

The slowdown, especially to travel through Sea-Tac Airport, is worse than those of either 9/11 or the Great Recession. This economic hit was the topic of Port Commissioner Sam Cho’s presentation Sept. 23 at a SnoValley Chamber of Commerce meeting.

As of July 2020, air traffic was down 75 percent year-over-year when compared with 2019. There was also a 17 percent decline in total shipping volume between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. And the cruise industry has been entirely halted because of the pandemic.

But even before the coronavirus exploded in the U.S., cargo was declining because of President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. The virus also began shutting down Asian ports in late 2019.

“We’ve been dealing with the outfall of COVID since November of last year,” Cho said.

Air travel through Sea-Tac Airport has been hit particularly hard. Cho estimates 20 million passengers will pass through the airport this year, less than half of the 50 million seen during a typical year.

“This is truly historically unprecedented,” Cho said.

While passenger air travel has dropped off, air cargo increased in February and March, as Amazon experienced a huge rise in demand.

And unrelated to the pandemic, Port officials are thinking about the repercussions of Boeing’s potential departure. This could not only reduce jobs in the area, but the amount of cargo being shipped.

“I would just really hate to see that job loss in the middle of COVID, and the loss of cargo through the Port of Seattle,” Cho said.

The cruise industry was shut down earlier this year after several outbreaks on cruise ships. Cho said the industry is expecting to recover next year, and people have already begun buying tickets for the 2021 summer season.

To counteract the effects of the pandemic, the Port is pushing forward with $1.5 billion in capital investments, renovating several airport facilities. Fewer airline passengers also makes it easier to undertake these renovations. Cho said passengers should be prepared to see significant construction at the airport for several months.

Businesses at the airport are also being offered rent relief, and evictions have been suspended due to the inability to pay. Leases have also been extended for three years.

The Port will begin equity and inclusion work. Historically, Cho said the Port hasn’t examined its internal processes. But the commissioners recently passed a motion prohibiting Port police from using chokeholds.

Another motion next month will address systemic racism.

“We’re going to be auditing ourselves on all the policies and practices within the Port of Seattle,” Cho said.

This includes looking at pay, equity issues and instances of racism.

In the Snoqualmie Valley, the Port awarded grants to support the “Savor Snoqualmie Valley” tourism initiative. Funding was also provided to the Carnation Chamber of Commerce and for the Seasons in Snoqualmie marketing campaign.

Sam Cho, Port of Seattle Commissioner. Courtesy photo

Sam Cho, Port of Seattle Commissioner. Courtesy photo