Joe Weintraub of Cranston has worked for Delta Airlines for 33 years. He was faithfully manning the ticket counter mid-morning Monday when he got his first visitor – actually this reporter – of the day.
Commenting on the emptiness of the terminal, the weird silence, he made the comparison to the days immediately following 9/11. Back then, he said, “There was an air of trepidation, almost like everyone was expecting something was going to happen bad at any moment.” That sense of anxiousness is there, but now, as Weintraub observes, this is a worldwide crisis and we’re in this altogether.
You don’t have to visit Green Airport to realize the impact of the coronavirus on the airline industry. Those living within hearing distance or in the flight paths to Green are still hearing the roar of a jet shortly after 5 a.m. and catching sight of planes taking off or the landing lights of an incoming flight. Mornings and evenings are quieter, sometimes eerily quiet at Green Airport. People aren’t traveling, yet planes are flying and the airport is operating.
“We’re learning to do business in a different way,” RIAC President and CEO Iftikhar Ahmad said in a telephone interview Monday evening. He said of 38 of RIAC’s staff of 151 are working from home. These are people in the engineering, finance and marketing departments. Much of the work relates to ongoing projects that fall within schedules such as $33 million in airfield improvements and the design and bidding for terminal upgrades and renovations.
Ahmad concedes these “are difficult, trying times,” but points out the airport managed with 9/11 and the great recession of 2008.
“We’re used to this drill,” he said.
He projects it will take two years from when emergency pandemic measures are lifted for Green to recover to the place it was as of February. He expects the recovery will be faster for the larger airports like Boston’s Logan.
“There is a fear we may lose an airline or two; we saw that in 2008,” he said.
Ahmad is concerned Logan could gain from the pandemic.
In comments filed Monday in response to the Department of Transportation’s Order to Show Cause concerning “Continuation of Certain Air Service,” that would lump Green and Manchester Airports with Logan for funding under the CARES Act, he writes, “This would put an undue burden on the two million people in our catchment area who would lose the access to T.F. Green Airport. T.F. Green Airport is the only commercial airport in the State of RI and that a consolidation of service to Logan would deprive an entire state of vital links and hurt the economy of the entire state.
He continues, “The United States Office of Management and Budget considers Providence, Worchester and Manchester all separate Metropolitan Areas, but only T.F. Green and Manchester are grouped together with Boston while Fall River/New Bedford and Worchester are separate “points”. This is treating the airports in our region unequally. It is our grave concern that such a provision will lead to air service be shifted from T.F. Green to Logan Airport, the largest airport in the region, and be concentrated there for the foreseeable future, as it allows recipient carriers to end all service at our airport while remaining compliant with the minimum service requirements.”
According to the filing, “The Show Cause Order also tentatively determined that, in cases where multiple airports serve the same point, covered carriers would not need to maintain service to all such airports, but would be able to consolidate operations at a single airport serving the point.”
Nonetheless, Ahmad is confident Green can weather the tough times. “Part of our job is to be ready,” he said.
Ahmad said RIAC has decreased its dependency on airlines by 50 percent while improving its liquidity. That strategy, he explained, enabled RIAC to lure low cost airlines to Green and helped drive up passenger traffic counts for January and February.
“We’re in pretty good shape. When you depend less on somebody else, you’re that much more free and that helps you.”
The numbers aren’t good now.
Referring to a day last week, Ahmad said under normal circumstances Green could have expected 5,500 enplanements – people boarding – but had 182.
RIAC spokesman John Goodman advised those planning to travel should check the airport website even if they have tickets.
Customarily at this time of the year, Delta has six flights from Green. On Monday, there were two flights to Detroit and one to Atlanta. The flights had fewer than 10 passengers each.
“Some [planes] are partially filled and that’s being generous,” Goodman said.
Goodman estimated Green has lost 80 percent of its scheduled flights since COVID-19 hardened its grip on the country. According to the schedule posted for Friday afternoon and evening starting at 2 p.m., 30 departures had been scheduled of which eight had been canceled. Of the 27 arrivals scheduled, six had been cancelled. By Monday, the picture had worsened. Of the 38 arrivals and departures scheduled for the full day, about half were canceled.
Passenger traffic is taking a nosedive across the country.
According to the Transportation Security Administration national data, a total of 124,021 passengers passed checkpoints on April 2. This compares to 2,411,500 for the same date last year.
The numbers keep dropping. The stats were 2,462 for April 5 compared to 2,462,929 for April 5, 2019.
Green is one of a handful of airports across the country that, per the governor’s directive, requires passengers returning from any international or domestic travel to self-quarantine for 14 days. While that may be bothersome and seen as a deterrent to flying to Rhode Island, it’s not likely to have blunted traffic.
People aren’t flying for business or pleasure.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has adjusted to the decline in traffic.
According to a TSA spokesperson, passenger counts and staffing requirements are monitored nationally, and adjustments are made locally based on available resources and safety measures. No people were being processed mid-morning Monday. Social distancing is not an issue.
The Federal Aviation Administration has also adjusted to the decline in flights.
An FAA spokeswoman noted that under normal circumstances, airlines can lose their slots at congested airports if they don’t use them at least 80 percent of the time. The FAA is waiving the 80-percent use requirement through May 31, 2020, for U.S. and foreign airlines that have affected flights, and is proposing to extend the waiver through Oct. 24, 2020.
In a press release issued March 27, Airlines for America President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio applauded President Trump and Congress for passage of the CARES Act.
He stated, “The impact of government- and business-imposed travel restrictions and public fear have devastated the U.S. airline industry, our employees, travelers and the shipping public. Since the beginning of March, U.S. air carriers - both passenger and cargo - have seen their positions of strong financial health deteriorate at an unprecedented and unsustainable pace. The human, financial and operational impacts are devastating, and the future remains uncertain.”
The effects of COVID-19 on the airline business are clearly visible in the skies above Rhode Island and the empty parking lots at Green Airport.
Ahmad is confident it will change.
“What’s important is we don’t lose sight of the long game; we have a mission for the public,” he said.