TAMPA, FL — Walking through Tampa International Airport's near-empty terminals during the coronavirus pandemic has been almost eerie, said Travis Leemreis of TPA's terminal operations team.
In March, the airport saw passenger numbers drop more than 90 percent compared to the same time in 2019.
"Walking the air sides these days is certainly different," Leemreis said. "It reminds me a lot of the days surrounding Hurricane Irma."
He said his team is staying busy monitoring the day-to-day operations, conducting ramp inspections, making sure safety protocols are followed and helping assist passengers where needed.
"Just the other day, a lady missed her flight on Alaska Airlines, and I was able to help assist in getting her rebooked on another flight," Leemreis said. "It’s a small thing, but customer service doesn’t stop just because of the coronavirus."
Betty Farkas-Hart, guest services supervisor, can relate.
“I have never seen it so empty in the 13 years I have been here," she said. “It’s strange not seeing so many passengers and I miss all the questions."
Nevertheless, she said she's adjusting to the airport's new safety protocols.
"Social distancing is important, but it’s also hard for me," said Leemreis. "I’m from France where hugging and kissing on the cheeks is a normal greeting. We all are getting used to wearing masks and gloves and staying 6 feet away."
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Tampa International Airport is making preparations for the eventual return of passengers and business, but TPA CEO Joe Lopano said the pandemic has completely changed the way the airport looks, feels and conducts business.
The airport has adopted a “TPA Ready” initiative that mandates best practices for social distancing, mask usage, plastic shield barriers, surface disinfection and touchless transactions, all designed to slow or stop the spread of germs and viruses.
The airport is also strongly urging passengers and guests to modify behaviors and follow guidelines designed to keep themselves and others healthy and safe.
“While we know there’s an eagerness among our travelers and employees to resume our normal lives again, that new normal may look very different than what we were accustomed to pre-COVID 19,” Lopano said. “Keeping people safe is always our top priority at TPA, and as people plan to come back, we want to ensure we are offering an environment that is clean, healthy and ready for business.”
He said, while travel is currently limited to essential purposes – like someone who needs to get to a critical doctor’s appointment in another state - the Federal Aviation Administration has determined that airports must remain open because they play an essential role in transporting cargo, medical and emergency equipment and personnel.
"We are an economic engine for the Tampa Bay region, supporting more than 100,000 jobs and driving billions of dollars annually in economic impact," said Lopano. "The faster we get back to full speed, the quicker Tampa Bay recovers. Our team is taking steps right now to ensure that TPA is ready to ramp up and serve the community as people gradually start flying again."
How fast airports like Tampa International Airport recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic depends a large part on the airlines.
American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and Spirit Airlines have submitted requests asking the U.S. Transportation Department for permission to suspend flights to airports around the country because they say they can't afford to continue flying jumbo jets containing only a few passengers.
JetBlue's request includes 16 airports, including Tampa International Airport, through Sept. 30.
The airline noted that some recent flights have had only two passengers.
British Airways has just resumed flights to Tampa International Airport from London through Gatwick Airport after suspending them from March 29 to April 30. However, 64 other global airlines have discontinued flights.
This all comes in the midst of Tampa International Airport's ambitious $2 billion expansion plans.
In July, after seeing a record number of 21 million passengers, the airport began the second phase of construction to make room for four more express curbside lanes on the upper and lower levels designed for passengers with no checked bags, as well as a new guideway to the airport's new terminal Airside D, which will house 16 domestic and international gates.
The airport is also redoing its SkyCenter atrium, expanding the Main Terminal's express curbsides and constructing a Taxiway A Bridge.
The 35-acre site located near the Rental Car Center will be home to a new nine-story, 271,500-square-foot office building with a parking garage, conference center and cafe, connected to a new car rental center and 2-year-old SkyConnect train to the terminal.
Other additions include two hotels, shops and gas stations.
See related story: Dramatic Implosion Of Airport Parking Garage Kicks Off Expansion
To help the airport stay afloat, last month Florida U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor was able to obtain $81 million of the $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus funds for Tampa International Airport.
The Coronavirus Air, Relief and Economic Security funds for TPA includes $10 billion for airport capital expenditures, airport operating expenses including payroll and utilities, and airport debt payments, she said.
“Tampa International Airport is the pride of the Tampa Bay area and its employees are critical to our economic well-being. I’m proud to announce emergency aid to ensure continuity of operations for essential services,” said Castor.
“Air travel and support to the front-line workers who are keeping our airports safe and clean are fundamental to our economy. In the days ahead I’ll work to speed additional aid to boost our economy and ensure lifeline services, like air travel, continue here in Tampa,” Castor said.
“This historic grant funding will provide much-needed relief to help mitigate the unprecedented and dramatic drop in business we’ve experienced and will ensure we’re able to recover and resume operations when that business returns," said Lopano. "We’re thankful to Rep. Castor and our other federal and FAA partners for the work and consideration they’ve put into the CARES Act and for recognizing the importance of supporting airport infrastructure.”
Key Changes At TPA
Plastic shields: Plastic or acrylic shields will be installed in key high-traffic areas, including ticket counters, TSA security checkpoints, boarding gate and concessions counters
Face masks: All employees will be required to wear face masks
Social-distancing markers: Thousands of ground markings and signs will give guidance on 6-foot distancing ticket counters, boarding gates, shuttles, SkyConnect, concessions counters, U.S. Customs, and other common areas
Reduced seating: Seating will be reduced, blocked off or spaced apart in places like gate areas, dining areas, work stations and Main Terminal greeting sections to promote distancing
Cleaning and sanitation: TPA is employing additional cleaning crew staff, using cutting-edge disinfection applications and products on surfaces, hand rails and elevator buttons, and adding more hand sanitizers throughout the airport
How This Will Impact Passengers
Passengers should plan to arrive at the airport at least two hours before departure to help prevent crowding caused by last-minute rushing before scheduled flights
Travelers should use carry-on luggage and mobile boarding passes to limit touchpoints
Those picking up or dropping off passengers should not enter the Main Terminal; instead they should use the Cell Phone Lot or stay in their vehicles in the Short-Term Garage unless they are assisting unaccompanied minors, passengers with disabilities or others who need assistance