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Travel slump, sick staff force cash-worried U.S. airports to downsize

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03/27/2020 | 09:27am EDT
A cleaner works at Hong Kong International Airport, following the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Hong Kong

With fewer planes flying and more security and traffic control officers testing positive for the coronavirus, airports are closing terminals, concessions and checkpoints, even while trying to retain jobs with the hope of a post-crisis pickup.

Orlando International Airport managers in Florida were this week considering turning a construction site for a runway rehabilitation into a parking lot for jets, while figuring out necessary staffing for increasingly deserted concourses.

People movers, for example, need maintenance even if they are not being used.

"You can't just let it sit there," said Phillip Brown, chief executive of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which normally oversees millions of visitors a year to theme parks like Disney World and Universal Studios.

Those parks are closed into April and Orlando airport was instead setting up zones for screening passengers arriving from New York-area airports for the coronavirus following self-quarantine orders from Florida's governor.

Florida, nicknamed the Sunshine State, has seen an increase in people fleeing New York with "shelter-in-place" orders.

Delta Air Lines has closed terminals in New York and Los Angeles, and is using a runway in its hometown of Atlanta to park jets that are not flying.

More than 30 jets were parked at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport this week, a spokesman said.

Twenty-nine U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening officers have tested positive at airports across the country in the past two weeks, the agency says, prompting checkpoint closures.

Even with the closures, U.S. airport screening wait times - often a source of public anger - are now routinely less than 10 minutes, reflecting dramatic falls in passenger numbers.

This week, TSA screened 454,000 passengers on Sunday, down 82% from a year ago, 331,000 on Monday, 279,000 on Tuesday, and 239,000 on Wednesday.

Still, airports are hoping that $10 billion (8.2 billion pounds) in government aid under a massive relief package expected to pass on Friday can help keep employees on payroll and ready to work once operations ramp back up, Brown said.

The stimulus deal includes $3 billion for 125,000 contracted airport workers.

But until the health crisis has passed and people start flying again, airports that only a month ago were in the midst of expansion projects will continue to downsize as the industry weathers its biggest ever downturn.

San Francisco International Airport said it was closing some security checkpoints, creating a single Customs & Border Protection entry for international arrivals and delaying opening new gates at the revamped Harvey Milk Terminal 1, while evaluating other measures.

Fitch Ratings on Thursday revised its outlook for U.S. airport bonds to "negative."

By Tracy Rucinski

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
AMERICAN AIRLINES GROUP INC. 5.62% 11.85 Delayed Quote.-58.68%
HOPE, INC. -1.47% 2673 End-of-day quote.-16.99%
WORLD CO., LTD. 1.06% 1628 End-of-day quote.-39.50%
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