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As airlines hit turbulence, Tampa airport pins hopes on coronavirus testing

Amid industry talk of layoffs, furloughs and bailouts, Tampa International Airport started swabbing passengers eager to get back in the air.
Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, center, announced a new pilot program for on-site coronavirus testing for passengers on Sept. 29, 2020 at the airport.
Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, center, announced a new pilot program for on-site coronavirus testing for passengers on Sept. 29, 2020 at the airport. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Oct. 1, 2020

By the time Tampa International Airport rolled out on-site coronavirus testing at 8 a.m. Thursday, there were already 14 passengers in line. Within the hour, 35 had gone through.

“We had a gentleman who was going to visit his daughter somewhere in the northeast who has cancer,” said John Tiliacos, the airport’s executive vice president of operations and customer service. “We had another gentleman who was going to see his dying sister in Colorado; she’s in hospice, and he said, ‘They won’t let me in to see her without a negative COVID test.’ So what we’re doing is just absolutely amazing.”

While dozens of passengers were getting swabbed, Thursday’s Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board meeting mostly emphasized the good news coming from the airport — new construction and public art projects, new and returning routes, the possible return of international travel, and, of course, the hub’s first-of-its-kind COVID-19 test program.

Related: Tampa airport introduces coronavirus screening for all passengers

Across the airline industry, though, the first day of October was one of anxiety. As part of a $25 billion bailout package this spring, major air carriers had agreed not to lay off employees through Sept. 30. Despite heavy lobbying from the airline industry, Congress has not passed an extension or new bailout package, leading to widespread talk of mass layoffs.

This week, the U.S. Treasury Department struck a deal to provide up to $7.5 billion in loans to seven carriers: Alaska, American, Frontier, JetBlue, Hawaiian, SkyWest and United. But so far, that hasn’t precluded the carriers from cutting jobs. Late Wednesday, American and United sent furlough notices to a combined 32,000 workers.

Tampa International Airport executives were not anticipating any immediate operational impact from the job cuts.

“We expect our flight activity and passenger activity to be the same,” Tiliacos said.

Still, the airport is slogging through the pandemic, just like the rest of the industry. August traffic was down 67 percent year over year. More than a dozen companies operating out of the hub, including United and Silver Airways, have notified the state of at least 1,600 potential job cuts.

Routes to more than 30 of Tampa International’s regular markets remain suspended, including 20 in the continental United States. Those flights that do come and go are generally about 50 percent full, said Chris Minner, the airport’s executive vice president of communications.

In an August and September survey of more than 140 Tampa Bay companies, airport officials found that 96 percent had paused non-essential business travel. More than 70 percent planned to keep it paused for at least three more months.

“Business travel, I expect there will be a long-term effect,” said Brad Kamp, the chairman of the University of South Florida’s economics department. “They’re trying to convince people it’s okay — and it probably is very safe. But there’s still a lot of people out there who aren’t really flying. And the other side of the coin is, do you really want to go stay in a hotel for three or for days? It’s not pretty.”

In order to combat the downturn, airport officials believe they have to convince passengers, carriers and destinations that they’re doing their part to mitigate exposure to the coronavirus.

“This is the major issue in the conversations that we’re having every month with the airline network planners all around the world, that we are trying to figure out: ‘When can we resume our flights to TPA?’” Minner said. “The question that we got more than any over the course of the last 30 days is: ‘What is Tampa International Airport doing to try to lean in on passenger testing?’ Because they recognize that’s probably going to be a linchpin.”

On Thursday at the airport, more than 80 people got tested, which “was a higher demand than we expected the first day,” said spokeswoman Emily Nipps. More requested rapid antigen tests than the more expensive (and generally more reliable) polymerase chain reaction swabs, suggesting that “the people who are coming are fliers who see the sign and want to stop and see if they have COVID," she said.

The testing program runs through October, though it could be extended or expanded to other airports. As the rest of the industry braces for winter, Tampa International officials hope they’re sending a message that the airport remains open for business — even behind the scenes.

Thursday’s Aviation Authority board meeting was held in person, the first time that’s happened since the spring. Seated alongside fellow board members Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and former MacDill Air Force Base commander Chip Diehl, chairman Gary Harrod noted it felt a little bit like the pre-pandemic days.

“General Diehl, Mayor Castor,” he said, “it’s nice to have somebody to sit next to.”

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