TAMPA — With traffic down 97 percent, Tampa International Airport officials said Wednesday that one thing has become clear during their preparations for the eventual return of passengers and business:
The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have “lasting effects on how the airport looks, feels and conducts business," officials said in announcing a safety plan designed to accommodate increased traffic while promoting social distancing.
The plan, known as “TPA Ready,” is based on research into how organizations from Walmart to other airports around the globe plan to handle public traffic as commerce rebounds.
"This is not unique to us,” Tampa International chief executive officer Joe Lopano told the Tampa Bay Times. “We’ve bench-marked some of the best practices and think we’ve identified those that make the most sense.”
Spring break tends to be the airport’s busiest season, with up to 80,000 travelers a day. Since March, however, passenger counts have dropped to a low of about 2,500 travelers a day, about 3 percent of normal, before starting to rise again.
On Wednesday, the airport saw about 3,600 passengers. Virtually everyone still flying, Lopano said, is a medical professional traveling for work or someone on their way to a loved one who is sick or is sheltering in place.
In anticipation of more passengers coming back, the airport plans to spend about $60,000 on changes that include:
• Plastic or acrylic shields in high-traffic areas like ticket counters, Transportation Security Administration security checkpoints, boarding gates and concessions counters.
• Face masks for all 10,000 airport employees.
• Thousands of floor markings and signs to give guidance on 6-foot distancing at ticket counters, boarding gates, shuttles, the SkyConnect train, concessions counters, U.S. Customs and other common areas.
• Seating that’s reduced, blocked off or spaced apart near gates, in dining areas, at work stations and in greeting areas of the main terminal.
• More cleaning staff that will use disinfectants on surfaces, hand rails and elevator buttons, plus adding more hand sanitizing stations.
“We know that people in this country want to fly when they feel they’re safe," Lopano said. “We have a part to play in that scenario, and we want to make sure that we get it right at the airport.
“We’re working along with the airlines so that when customers decide they want to travel, they can be sure that the most up-to-date techniques and standards are being used.”
The airport also will advise passengers and visitors to wear face masks while there for any reason; to arrive for their outbound flights at least two hours early to help prevent crowds from forming in last-minute rushes; and to use carry-on luggage and mobile boarding passes to limit the need for airport employees to touch things that passengers also touch.
Visitors picking up or dropping off passengers should not enter the main terminal, the airport says, but should plan to use the cell phone lot or to stay in their cars in the short-term parking garage unless they are helping unaccompanied children, passengers with disabilities or others who need help.
Two weeks, ago, the federal Department of Transportation announced that Tampa International would receive $81 million in pandemic relief funds approved by Congress. The funds can be used for operating expenses, payroll, utilities, construction and debt payments.
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