How COVID-19 is transforming travel at Ford Airport

Coronavirus

CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Travelers are in for a new experience the next time they step into the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

Since COVID-19 hit and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued executive orders, Ford Airport has been virtually empty, serving only essential travel needs. But the workers who are still inside have been busy.

NEW AIRPORT EXPERIENCE

The changes are visible as soon as visitors arrive. The shuttle buses are running limited service with workers wiping down after each traveler comes through.

While Ford Airport isn’t requiring people to wear masks once they step inside, the airport is recommending visitors follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which urge mask use by those who are able.

>>Online: Ford Airport COVID-19 response | Ford Airport protocol FAQ

Inside the airport, travelers will notice about two dozen more hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the terminal. Crews will soon install plastic barriers in areas where travelers directly interact with employees.

“It’ll be different. It’ll be quieter. It’ll be asking people to comply with social distancing, be safe, be clean,” then-airport spokeswoman Tara Hernandez said of the new airport experience.

The Transportation Security Administration is also doing its part by allowing travelers to carry up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer and requiring its officers to wear gloves and masks.

“From the airport side, we are putting the stickers on the floor, too, for people to maintain proper social distancing in the TSA security checkpoint line,” added Hernandez.

Ford Airport has also spaced apart seating and is considering how to change restaurant layouts in the gate area for the same purpose of social distancing.

“(We’re) working with the food and beverage operators to see what can we do to make this a completely seamless and touchless environment for you coming in… from the parking lot,” said Tory Richardson, president and CEO of Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority.

Enviro-Master of West Michigan now visits the airport several times a week to disinfect the building at night using its fogging machine, in addition to enhanced cleaning of high-touch areas by airport staff.

Travelers can do their part in reducing touch points by downloading their boarding pass onto their smartphone.

Richardson says planes will also likely sit at gates longer for disinfecting and sanitizing between flights.

>>Online: CDC COVID-19 guidelines for air carriers

“The whole picture, it keeps changing on us right now. And that’s what we’re trying to adapt to. As things get a little bit clear, as we understand more about what we need to do to protect ourselves and the public, we’ll be doing more of that,” said Richardson. “I think things will settle in place, but it’s taking us a little bit of time… literally the world really to figure this out.”

AIRLINE ALTERATIONS

The airlines are doing their part to ease travelers’ COVID-19 concerns by stepping up in-cabin cleaning procedures and altering their boarding process to reduce contact.

Most air carriers that operate out of Ford Airport have announced they’re temporarily blocking off seats on their aircraft to distance passengers. They’re also touting their aircrafts’ air purification systems and electrostatic spraying to disinfect the interior.

Allegiant Air

  • As they board their flight, all passengers will be given a complimentary kit that includes a single-use face mask, a pair of disposable non-latex gloves and cleaning wipes.
  • Crew members must wear gloves.
  • Passengers must fill out a medical form and wash/sanitize their hands before their flight.
  • While seats will be blocked, they could be filled on a full flight.

American Airlines

  • Through May 31, 2020, the airline is restricting access to some seats.
  • Through May 31, 2020, food and drink services in the main cabin will be limited based on flight length and destination. Passengers may bring snacks and pop on board.
  • All passengers and flight attendants are required to wear masks.
  • All passengers will be offered sanitizing wipes and masks “as supplies and conditions allow.”

Delta Air Lines

  • Through June 30, 2020, the airline is blocking seating to maintain 50% capacity in first class and 60% in all other seating areas.
  • Passengers are provided hand sanitizer and protective equipment “when available.”
  • Delta employees and passengers are required to wear masks or “appropriate face coverings” starting at the check-in lobby and for the duration of the flight.
  • Altering food and beverage service on all flights. Passengers are encouraged to pack their own food and non-alcoholic beverages to decrease touch points.

Frontier Airlines

  • All passengers must wear a face covering over their nose and mouth, including at ticket counters, gates and aboard the aircraft.
  • Passengers must wash and sanitize their hands before boarding their flight, check their temperature before heading to the airport and complete a health form on the company’s website or mobile app.
  • Starting June 1, Frontier will check the temperatures of all passengers and crew with touchless thermometers. Those with a temperature of 100.4 degrees won’t be allowed to fly.
  • While Frontier initially offered passengers the guarantee of an empty middle seat if they paid $39 for the more room option, the airline backtracked on this plan after congressional backlash and its CEO said the airline would instead block seats from being sold.
  • Limiting food and beverage service to requests only.

Southwest Airlines

  • Through June 2020, the airline is limiting the number of passengers to keep the middle aisle empty for social distancing.
  • Passengers will board in groups of 10 and are encouraged to follow social distancing stickers to curb crowding at the gate.
  • Passengers and staff in contact with passengers must wear a mask or face covering while on board. Southwest will provide a mask for those who forget theirs.
  • No snacks or beverages will be served to limit contact.
  • Wipes available for passengers on board.
  • Plexiglas added at ticket and gate counters.

United Airlines

  • Through May 31, 2020, the airline is limiting seating in all cabins to promote social distancing.
  • Through June 30, 2020, passengers on fuller flights can contact the airline to re-book an emptier flight or get a travel credit.
  • All employees and passengers are required to wear a face mask unless they are a small child or medically unable to do so.
  • The airline has altered food service and temporarily removed “onboard items” to minimize contact.
  • Stickers and signage added to encouraging social distancing at ticket counters.
  • Adding sneeze guards at check-in and gate counters.
  • Boarding fewer passengers at a time.
  • Checking the temperatures of all employees.
  • Providing hand-sanitizing wipes to passengers.

News 8 also reached out to Midwest Express for its COVID-19 prevention plan but has not yet heard back.

DEVASTATING DROP IN TRAFFIC

Tory Richardson says the drastic drop in airport traffic has been devastating.

“You just know that the place should be busy,” he said. “Right now, I should be able to look out my window and see lots of airplanes coming and going. They’re just sitting on the ramp. I should be able to see a lot of people processing through the checkpoint, excited about going somewhere… and right now, you don’t see much of that. And that’s really depressing.

“I mean, I think there’s still that demand. People will want to go out and do those things and socially interact again. But right now, you know, people are, I think for the most part, taking the stay-home order seriously.”

Richardson told News 8 the number of travelers passing through the airport’s TSA checkpoint bottomed out about three weeks ago, down 96% from the same time last year. Since then, it’s slowly started to climb to 7% of what the airport saw at that time.

“We’re hoping this is a trend that will continue. It’s, you know, small wins at this point that we’re looking forward to,” he said.

While fewer travelers are flying right now, aircraft are still carrying cargo, including food and medical supplies. A recent Delta flight from Los Angeles brought personal protection equipment to West Michigan.

“Efforts like that, we see during this time when we’re in a pandemic, but year-round … we have about a $3.1 billion economic impact on western Michigan,” said Hernandez.

Richardson says Ford Airport’s decline in travelers is no anomaly.

“Our numbers are pretty consistent with the national average. When we saw the low of around 4% from a year ago, that was pretty much what TSA is seeing nationwide at all the airports,” he said.

It’s a big hit to the airport’s $60 million budget. Richardson estimates Ford Airport lost about $10 million in revenue from mid-March through April. That doesn’t include the money the airport is losing out on by deferring bill payments from airlines, vehicle rental companies and food and beverage vendors.

But the airport is getting some help in the form of $16.2 million from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Securities Act. Richardson says that money will come in chunks as reimbursement for COVID-19-related costs the airport has already accrued. However, he says it won’t be enough to staunch the outflow of money.

“The federal government requires us to stay open, to use our facilities identity point that they may need to, and so we continue to have those expenses. They’re giving us some backstop with some of that CARES Act money, but it doesn’t even cover all of the losses. So we continue to operate at a loss and the airlines are no different,” he explained.

Richardson estimates if conditions stay the same, the airport will lose $5 million every month and only begin to break even when air travel climbs to half of what it was before the pandemic hit.

And recovery could take a while, if traveler data collected by airlines is any indication.

“They’re telling us that activity level is very low and that the demand will remain very weak throughout the rest of the summer into the fall. And we’re likely not to even see anything like (when) we were in this pre-COVID era until probably two, three years down the road from where we’re at today,” said Richardson.

‘FORD AIRPORT WILL SURVIVE’

The losses have forced Ford Airport to make cuts to its 110-person workforce. Two dozen workers were offered early retirement packages and another 15 employees were either laid off, furloughed or had their jobs outsourced.

Richardson says every department is impacted.

“It’s been tough,” he said. “For the first month and a half, we were able to retain all of our employees throughout that downturn until we really got to the point where we’re like, ‘OK, this is going to go on for some time. We’re not going to get the funding as quick as what we had hoped. We’re not seeing a quick recovery.”

But Richardson says Ford Airport will come out of this crisis.

“Ford Airport will survive. We will be here. We’ve had to make some changes to ensure that,” he said.

“You know, we’ll continue to adapt and be resilient and we’ve got a great team that’s looking forward to serving people when they come back. We’ll get through it, but things will probably be a little different and there’ll be a little different for a while.”

While the previously budgeted Gateway Transformation project is behind schedule, Richardson expects the airport upgrades to be finished by fall.

However, he says the airport authority will have to rethink several future construction projects.

FUTURE OF FLIGHT

Richardson says the economic crisis will likely hit legacy airlines like American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines harder because they rely on revenue from international business travelers.

“There’s a good chance that we could see airlines that might file for protection, maybe even go away altogether,” said Richardson.

American Airlines and United Airlines lost a combined $4 billion in the first quarter of the year, triggering cost-cutting measures, including trimming flight schedules, borrowing money and encouraging employees to retire early.

Richardson expects demand for domestic leisure flights to build before international business ones, since each country and company must work through how they’re handling COVID-19.

 “(Allegiant is) probably going to be the No. 1 airline out here just based on the fact that they’re flying their airplane still. They still have a pretty good passenger load now when they’re going back out, versus some of the other more traditional legacy carriers,” he said.

Richardson says now is the time to get a good deal on airfare, but travelers should check with their airline the day of their flight to ensure it’s going out as scheduled, since some airlines are cancelling flights with too few passengers.

He says airlines will work with travelers on canceled flights to put them on a different flight or offer a refund.

“I want West Michigan to know that we’re here, we’re ready. We’re willing to serve them, that that flying can be safe and healthy,” said Richardson.


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