If it weren't for the COVID-19 outbreak, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport would likely be swamped with summer travelers itching to fly out of town for the July 4th holiday.
But the global coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout have devastated air travel in the Twin Cities and beyond. As departures from the airport likely inch up in July, airport officials launched a big push Thursday to reassure skittish passengers that they can travel and remain healthy.
The Travel Confidently program means restrooms and high-touch areas of the airport will be cleaned more often, with both terminals' public areas undergoing electrostatic disinfectant fogging every night.
The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which owns and operates the airport, is also "strongly" recommending that travelers wear face coverings or masks, and adopt strict social distancing practices in the terminals, shops and restaurants.
More than 50 hand sanitizer stations have been installed in public spaces, along with 130 shield guards at ticket counters, gate desks and podiums, security checkpoints and information booths. Airport officials also encourage travelers to pre-book their parking space, limiting touches on keypads and credit card readers.
"We're expecting an increase in traffic in July," said MAC Chief Executive Officer Brian Ryks. "Whether our passengers return to the skies next month or later in the year, they will experience a very different airport" in terms of the safety elements put in place.
During the early throes of the coronavirus in April — typically a busy month for travel because of spring break vacations — passenger levels at the airport plunged by 95%.
The airport's July travel forecast shows more routes returning to airport and average daily departures inching up to 233 flights — an increase over 138 daily departures in June but far below the 554 flights that departed daily last July.
"There's no question that travel is slowly recovering," said Kyle Potter, editor of Thrifty Traveler, a Minnesota-based travel and flight deal website. "The question now is whether that's sustainable when you look past August and September."
Ben Humphrey, vice president of operations at the airport for Delta Air Lines, said at a news conference Thursday almost all of the flights booked from the airport are heading to domestic destinations.
Delta, the airport's dominant carrier, has initiated its own safety program to clean aircraft and its gate areas. Planes are generally booked up to 60% capacity to keep middle seats open, Humphrey said.
Likewise, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has installed plastic shielding, promoted social distancing in checkpoint lines, and initiated frequent cleaning of commonly touched areas.
"Airports and airlines alike have realized that concerns for safety are stopping people from traveling. Before, it was ticket price," Potter said. "Safety is the name of the game right now."
Total travel spending is expected to decline by 45% this year, according to the U.S. Travel Association, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group. The total number of domestic trips by U.S. residents has decreased by 30% to 1.6 billion travelers, the lowest dip since the 1991 recession.
International travel is especially uncertain, as European Union countries contemplate a ban of U.S. travelers.
Since the virus took hold in the U.S. last March, several international carriers have suspended operations at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, including Aer Lingus, KLM, Condor, Air Canada, Air France and Icelandair. Spirit Airlines has resumed service and Jet Blue will be back July 1, according to MAC officials.
Passenger traffic at both terminals Thursday morning was sparse, and there were no lines at TSA checkpoints.
Ethan Blomquist had just arrived on a flight from Detroit to attend a bachelor party in the Twin Cities. It was the first time he'd flown since COVID-19 hit. "It was about what I expected, people were wearing masks and there was a lot of hand sanitizer," Blomquist said.
Bonnie Dighton, who flew from Sacramento to visit her grandchildren in Rogers, said she was more concerned about the unrest following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
"We know what to do about COVID," Dighton said.