Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s January and February numbers spurred projections for another record year of traffic, with signs pointing to 113 million passengers by the end of 2020.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic — labeled as such by the World Health Organization March 11 — which brought about a precipitous decline in air traffic as governments around the U.S. and world ordered lockdowns and, in some cases, bans on non-essential travel.
The world’s busiest airport stayed open, and in fact has never closed, but it became somewhat of a ghost town. About two-thirds of concessionaires shuttered and shed jobs as traffic dried up, taking with it the airport’s main sources of revenue: parking and concessions.
Armed with more than $330 million from the CARES Act, the city’s Department of Aviation has continued functioning with pretty much all of its staff, even as contractors and airlines — which make up the bulk of the 50,000-plus jobs on site — have seen large reductions through furloughs, as in the case of Delta.
“On April 8 we had about 9,000 passengers,” General Manager John Selden said in a call with World Affairs Council of Atlanta President Charles Shapiro Thursday, contrasting the trough with the pre-pandemic average of about 300,000 per day. “We hit about a 97 percent drop that quickly. It started somewhere around March 10, and it just fell off a cliff.”
Flights suffered less drastically, falling from 2,500 per day to about 1,000 as repatriation flights continued and cargo freighters increased service to deliver goods and personal protective equipment, he said. Wednesday, some 850 flights brought about 17,000 people through the airport. Cargo is down overall, as more than half of the volume came in the bellies of jets that are no longer flying due to the lack of passengers.
“We’re very excited about the cargo freighter business, and we believe that the belly cargo will return when the flights return,” Mr. Selden said, noting that Taiwan’s EVA Air and a Russian jet from China just brought in planes full medical supplies. Amazon has also increased its freighter service to the airport.
Passenger traffic is starting to see early signs of recovery, said Mr. Selden, who projected that the Fourth of July weekend could bring traveler numbers up toward 30,000.
Domestic flights will be the priority in the short term, as the patchwork of country-by-country regulations will make it difficult for airlines like Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines, which did not carry any passengers through Atlanta in April, to justify restarting service.
A former assistant general manager at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Mr. Selden said a ban on U.S. travelers the European Union is reportedly mulling would affect JFK, LAX and other more internationally oriented airports more than Atlanta in the short term.
“We are really a domestic hub for Delta with a good percentage of international flights, but it’s not that significant here at Hartsfield-Jackson, and we fully expect the domestic recovery before the international flight recovery. It’s easier to control what’s going on in the United States than it is to control what’s going on in other countries.”
Noting the importance of retaining international business, he added that the airport has halted international airline recruitment for the foreseeable future, citing COVID-19 and the ever-present limitations on gate capacity. Once that frees up, the airport will look for more partners. Delta and Southwest occupy a combined 80 percent of the airport’s 193 gates; the airport is adding five more now.
“We have a list of people that want to come to Hartsfield-Jackson, and when we get through with that list, we will figure out if we need to go out and recruit foreign carriers and additional domestic carriers,” he said, adding that only about 550 people went through customs in Atlanta from six flights Wednesday.
That said, he did expect flights from Atlanta to Seoul and Shanghai to return, and he expressed little worry that ubiquitous video-conferencing would replace in-person interactions that necessitate air travel.
Mr. Selden remembers vividly that same worry after 9/11, when he was a pilot for American Airlines. But the reliance on technology dissipated when the “aviation community was able to instill to customers that they were safe on a plane.“
Once a vaccine is in place, he believes things will start to recover by the winter.
“International travel is going to be slower, but I think there is pent-up demand for travel. If people feel safe because of a vaccine, it will be a very good recovery,” Mr. Selden said, projecting 70-75 percent of pre-COVID capacity.
Without a vaccine?
“Travel will be more of a necessity than a vacation nicety, but I still believe that people will learn to live with the virus and keep themselves safe.”
That’s a priority of the airport, though directives by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp constrain the city-run airport from mandating that masks be worn in the concourses. Most airlines, including Delta, are requiring masks as a precondition for boarding, and Frontier Airlines is scanning temperatures. Mr. Selden and others are lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration for national guidelines.
Meanwhile, the airport has stepped up deep cleaning, closing off areas of the airport and taking trains out of service to “fog” them with disinfectants, much like airlines are doing with their planes. One “silver lining” is that the airport’s massive capital improvement program is being sped up, given that the airport can close off areas and expand construction hours more easily with the lack of traffic.
Based on advice from his wife, a nurse, as well as other medical authorities, Mr. Selden recommended travelers with health conditions wear an N95 mask, which protects the wearer from most airborne particles, while medical and cloth masks mostly help the wearer from spreading their germs to others.