BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) – Walking through the terminal at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, Ronald Mathieu notices how quiet it is.
“It is weird, it’s unsettling and I really want to do everything I can for us to get back to normal,” said Mathieu, President and CEO of the airport.
He knows “normal” is a way off. Air travel dropped gradually when the pandemic hit, then “hit the floor” in April, said Mathieu.
“We didn’t hit the bottom until April 15. That was the lowest day ever, I think, in the history of this airport.”
Fewer than 200 people traveled that day.
“I think it will be a while before we get back to where we were before. We’re hopeful it’ll be in a year or so we don’t know, but right now we are hoping to get at sustained 50-percent and then continue to build from there.”
For now, he’s focusing on building customer confidence by showing what’s happening at the airport to keep travelers safe.
“We want the passengers who are here, our fellow citizens, to know, that we are up, we are open, and we are safe as a facility.”
Safety starts at the security checkpoint where masks are required, like tickets and ID. A cleaning crew is standing by to clean each bin after use. Every seat and surface in the terminals are decontaminated using disinfectant foggers.
He said the sanitation protocols followed in Birmingham, are followed at airports across the country.
“Really, what we want to tell the customers is we know a lot more about this today than we did back in March and April and we have much better chemicals, we have people trained, we have much better consultants, we are out there doing everything we can so that you as a passenger do not have to worry about the airport,” said Mathieu.
A recent study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found “low risk” of SARS-COV-2 transmission on planes because of “high-performing ventilation systems” and mandatory use of face masks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns there’s still a risk of exposure to COVID-19. In assessing travel risk, the CDC said flights with layovers is as risky as traveling on a cruise ship or river boat. It compares the risk of taking a direct flight with a long-distance train or bus trip, and “trips by car or RV with people who are not from your household.”
“The airlines are doing all that they can to give you that confidence,” said Matheiu, who has plans to travel to New York this month. “I have seen them clean the aircraft in-between every departure, they’re giving you hand sanitizers when you get on, and the filters are working just fine.”
Eight months into the pandemic, Ashridha Chalamalla is taking her first flight, but not by choice.
“I think only in emergency cases if you’re traveling, then it’s fine,” she said.
Frances is flying again for business.
“I do believe we need to go on with our lives, as safely as possible,” she said.
Mathieu said 60,000 passengers flew out of Birmingham’s airport in October and hopes to have “a little more” in November.
“That will show us that we are headed in the right direction and normal trends are starting to come back.”
AAA estimates 2.4 million Americans will travel by plane for Thanksgiving this year, compared to 4.6 million in 2019.
If you’re flying during the pandemic, the CDC recommends:
- Wear a mask in public settings, like on public and mass transportation, at events and gatherings, and anywhere you will be around people outside of your household.
- Avoid close contact by staying at least 6 feet apart (about 2 arm lengths) from anyone who is not from your household.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol).
- Avoid contact with anyone who is sick.
- Avoid touching your face mask, eyes, nose, and mouth.