It was about 7:15 p.m. on Sept. 9, 2017.
The final Southwest Airlines jet barreled down Runway 1 Right at Tampa International Airport, pointed its nose to the sky and disappeared into the clouds — and to safety.
Off Florida’s coast, Hurricane Irma, then a dangerous Category 5 storm, was headed straight for Tampa Bay.
At Tampa International, not a single plane was left on the normally busy airfield. The gates had been stowed and strapped down, removing them from service. It was silent with no ramp workers or tug vehicles in view. Inside, only essential employees, including the airport’s “Storm Riders” and a small number of guests, were left.
Behind the scenes, however, the airport bustled with activity, as the team fully implemented Tampa International’s hurricane plan — a massive undertaking that involved a workforce of nearly 10,000 spread across dozens of different companies, including airlines, concessions workers, construction crews and federal agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Getting to this moment was the product of countless hours of preparation, planning, collaboration and coordination that began months before hurricane season arrived. While the region was spared the worst of the storm, it serves as a valuable and recent reminder: You can never plan too much. Our approach always is, you plan for the worst and hope for the best.
And that’s just what Tampa International is doing this year.
Safety is at the core of everything we do at the airport — there is nothing more important.
We frequently test our plans, conducting tabletop and simulated exercises, and we regularly review them internally with our key stakeholders to ensure they are up-to-date and cover any new developments. We maintained a strong partnership with the National Weather Service to provide the most accurate and up-to-date storm predictions, allowing our team to make critical operational decisions such as suspending and resuming airport operations. Our goal is not only to weather the storm, but to reopen and resume normal operations as soon as safely possible in order to help the region fully recover.
This year’s planning process, which is well underway, has an added wrinkle: The COVID-19 pandemic.
While our fundamental planning and response has not changed, we are reinventing how we execute.
For example, key emergency updates will be conducted via web and teleconference, to the extent possible, and those employees allowed into our Emergency Operations Center will be limited in order to ensure social distancing. All those entering the space will be required to wear face masks — now an airport requirement for all employees — and follow other proper safety precautions. Essential employees who remain at the airport, who will be a key aspect of our response, will stay in separate rooms and congregate in as small groups as possible to follow recommended Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
It’s also critically important that people remember Tampa International Airport is not equipped as a hurricane shelter. This is especially true this year, given concerns over COVID-19 and additional safety measures that may be required to keep residents safe.
As always, we will work closely with our partners at Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa to communicate open shelter information to our passengers, or any other vital messages our community needs to receive
We are an economic engine for the Tampa Bay area and a vital part of this region’s economy. As such, it’s critical that we are well prepared and resilient to face whatever may come our way, and that we’re able to safely and quickly resume commercial flight operations.
John Tiliacos is executive vice president of operations and customer service at Tampa International Airport.
2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm
BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm
PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job
NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter
Lessons from Hurricane Michael
What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael
‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael
What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm