Charlotte’s airport remains open but is eerily deserted; ‘You feel as if you are the last man standing in all mankind,’ pilot says
By Shawn Flynn
Many planes are grounded. The parking lots are vacant. And the rocking chairs are empty.
On paper, Charlotte’s airport is the 11th busiest in the country and a vital engine in the region’s economic growth. But nowadays, it’s an eerie place that workers and travelers say looks like a scene from an apocalypse movie: It’s open for business, but there’s almost nobody there.
In a City Council committee meeting Thursday, aviation director Brent Cagle said the number of passengers has plunged 90-95% and he’s not sure when they might return. “Optimistically, we might start to recover in six months,” he said. “Pessimistically, it could be significantly longer than that.”
Airport workers, airline employees and security are still showing up, of course. And there are even a small number of travelers — some on business and others who are responding to the crisis or helping a friend or family member in need.
Escape from New York: Lifelong Charlottean Andrew Taylor booked a flight to New York City months ago to help a friend move to Charlotte. He said he had no choice but to go late last month. What he experienced was unusual.
“It was very surreal,” Taylor said. “Security took maybe 10 minutes, the flight had about 10-15 people including the crew. Everyone had their own row and the crew encouraged everyone to separate.”
New York City became the nation’s hot spot for coronavirus cases right at the time Taylor arrived. He said it felt that way when he left the plane.
“The airport in New York was the weirdest part. It was like an apocalypse movie. I have photos of baggage claim in LaGuardia with not a single person,” Taylor said.
Outside of the terminal, it was a different story.
“The shuttle drivers and the staff in New York were happy and welcoming, smiling and telling me, ‘Welcome to New York!’ Like a VIP,” Taylor said.
Despite the warm welcome, Taylor wasn’t in the mood to stay. He went to his friends’ apartment, packed up the car and started driving home within hours. “There was a sense of relief to not be there when we got back to Charlotte,” he admitted.
Flying empty planes
If it’s a bizarre time to be a traveler, it’s also a weird time for pilots.
“Walking through airports these days are dark, gloomy and deserted,” said Moon Mahmood, a pilot for a subsidiary airline of American Airlines. “You feel as if you are the last man standing in all mankind, against an unknown enemy.”
He says most of the passengers right now are people who must fly during this pandemic. Doctors, nurses, first responders, military personnel and even some elected officials — anyone who is considered essential in the fight against Covid-19.
“Flying an empty or near-empty airplane is something I didn’t sign up for. It is not normal,” Mahmood said. “I became an airline pilot to connect people with their families, friends, and occasions. It’s the greatest feeling ever seeing people connect with their loved ones.”
He said he’s trying to keep a positive attitude and sense of humor. He uses several social media channels, where he posts unusual things … like this dance video with a gate agent Sunday night in Charlotte:
“During times like these, we should focus our thoughts on trying to help one another,” he said. “Spread love, show kindness and do our best in putting a smile on people’s faces. It’s a joyful experience seeing others laugh and smile.”
American Airlines suffering
The near-total drop-off in travel has been a huge blow to American Airlines, Charlotte’s dominant carrier and one of the region’s biggest employers. It has an estimated 11,000 local workers. American and other airlines haven’t laid off workers, and they have applied for government funding to help them stay afloat, with more federal help expected to be on the way. The company’s stock is down 55% on the year.
Just two months ago, leaders with American and Charlotte-Douglas celebrated a milestone of the airline making 700 daily flights from Charlotte. That number will be cut 60-80% in the coming month.
“Nobody’s traveling in the next 30 or 60 days,” Vasu Raja, American’s senior vice president for network strategy, told The Wall Street Journal this week. “But nobody is really making any plans to go travel in the next 90 to 150 days, either.”
Flights suspended: From Charlotte, American is canceling or suspending several international flights. Flights to London and Munich are scheduled to resume July 7, and flights to Frankfurt are supposed to resume Oct. 25. The airline has canceled flights from Charlotte to Barcelona, Paris, Dublin, Rome and Madrid.
Just a month ago, airport officials boasted about reaching the 50 million passenger mark in 2019. They said 2019 was a record-breaking year. That record might hold for a while.
Still building: Construction crews continue to work on expanding the new terminal and adding additional gates. Revenue for that construction comes from passenger fees. The airport averages 130,000 daily passengers. If capacity drops by 80%, the number of daily passengers is cut by more than 100,000 travelers a day — endangering that source of revenue.
In a statement to The Ledger, airport officials wrote: “We are certainly concerned about the financial impacts and are evaluating the effects of this downturn. The Airport will be taking actions to adjust our operating and capital expenses, based on the loss of revenue. We are still working through that process and it’s too early to provide further information. The City of Charlotte and the Aviation Department are not looking at employment reductions, at this time.”
The airport is also taking extensive cleaning measures to ensure safety including adding hand-sanitizing stations. Housekeeping and airport staff increased daily cleanings and focus on high touch points like seating, handrails, restrooms, people movers and elevators. Cleaning crews are also using an electrostatic spray and cleaning solutions recommended by the CDC specifically to combat the coronavirus.
Several long term and daily parking lots were closed so travelers and employees could walk to the terminal rather than take the bus.
Shawn Flynn has spent more than a quarter century as a journalist, including the past 17 years here in Charlotte. He is currently a freelance writer, teaching and consulting with several nonprofits. You can contact him at ShawnKFlynn@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @FlynnShawn.
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