ST. PAUL -- When Matthew Noel flew to Denver recently, he said he was surprised how easy it was to find a parking spot at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Entering Terminal Two, the St. Paul Lowertown resident said the airport was empty. Many restaurants in the terminal were shuttered down, and the ones that remained open had lines stretching out the door.
As someone who also flew in early March, right before the pandemic ushered in the cancelation of hundreds of flights nationwide, Noel said it was surreal to see the MSP airport so quiet and everyone around him wearing a mask.
“You’re driving in the airport like, ‘Oh man, OK, a somewhat sense of normalcy,'” he said. “And then you get there (and) it kind of hits you again that, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going through a global pandemic.'”
At its lowest, MSP saw a 95% decline in passenger travel in April, but since then has slowly started to recover. As of August, MSP was operating at only 40% of the passenger traffic they normally would see, said Jeff Lea, a spokesperson for MSP.
MSP, like many other airports, are grappling with the financial implications of COVID-19. Pre-pandemic the airport was anticipating to double their growth this year, but the steep drop off in passengers has set them back significantly, Lea said.
“Truly, this could be an impact that’s going to be felt for two or three years beyond now,” he said. “And that’s not just from an MSP point-of-view, that’s really from an industry standpoint.”
Kevin Burke, CEO and president of Airports Council International North America, said the airport industry estimates to lose $23 billion from March to February 2021.
Major commercial service airports received $10 billion in aid from the federal CARES Act in March to help fund continued operations and replace lost revenue. Although the assistance helped soften the blow, Burke said airports will need additional funding to avoid cutting staff and reducing their operating budgets after the CARES Act assistance is set to expire on Oct. 1.
Labor Day weekend was the largest amount of traffic MSP has seen since the pandemic started, which Lea says is a positive sign.
Predicting what travel could look like in the future however, could be more complicated. International travel to certain countries remains limited, and business travel, which generates the most revenue of all passengers, is still at a low.
With COVID comes new changes in screening and protocols for passengers.
In June, the Metropolitan Airports Commission launched a health safety program in an effort to protect passengers moving through MSP. The program contained a set of safety measures including more frequent and thorough cleaning of the airport, signage to maintain a six foot distance, a mask mandate and the installation of hand sanitizer stations. Although previously there has been little research showing COVID-19 can spread on planes, a new study looking at a 10-hour flight back in March found that at least a dozen passengers contracted the virus from a passenger believed to have COVID-19. The study provides new evidence about proximity and spread of the virus on airplanes.
Although each airline has its own safety measures in place, Lea said passengers can expect more spaced-out TSA checkpoint lines and an overall shorter wait. Many airlines are not booking their planes to full capacity or leaving a middle seat open between passengers, but some are not.
MSP officials plan to restart service between Minneapolis and Amsterdam on Oct. 25. This will be the first transoceanic route from MSP since last spring.