Air travails

HARLINGEN — Due to coronavirus-related disruptions, U.S. airlines and airports are experiencing some turbulence.

Several U.S.-based carriers have announced dramatic flight reductions following the Trump administration’s ban on foreign travelers arriving from Europe. On Monday, President Trump advised Americans to “avoid discretionary travel.”

At Valley International Airport, passenger enplanements have been bubbling along, with the airport seeing a 13 percent increase in departing passengers in February.

“I think in some ways the Winter Texan season and the Spring Breakers are definitely cushioning that drastic fall that a lot of airports are seeing throughout the nation,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation at VIA, said Monday. “Once that’s over, it’ll be interesting.

“I’m really hoping we get through this month, the next couple of months, of Winter Texans as well as the Spring Breakers, and then we see the flattening of the curve of coronavirus and we start getting back to normal,” he added.

Airlines pull back

American Airlines, which is one of the six passenger carriers offering service at Valley International, announced it would commence a staged draw-down of international flights beginning Monday that eventually would amount to 75 percent less capacity.

The Fort Worth-based airline also forecast its domestic capacity — the number of seats available on its planes — would probably fall off 20 percent in April and another 30 percent in May.

United Airlines announced it would a cut capacity by around 50 percent for April and May.

“We also now expect these deep cuts to extend into the summer travel period,” said chief executive Oscar Munoz and company president Scott Kirby in a letter to employees published Sunday.

Revenue for March 2020 was projected to be down $1.5 billion compared to last March, the United letter added.

The United execs said the airline has been meeting with its unions “about to reduce our payroll expense,” saying it would be “painful” but that senior executives already have been informed their salaries are being cut in half.

Delta Air Lines officials said they will “significantly reduce” flights to and from Europe beginning Monday, and Southwest Airlines said it will “likely” make service reductions given lower demand.

Earlier this month, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, noting 97 percent of his airline’s business is domestic, said the drop-off in U.S. travel he was seeing “has a 9/11 like feel.”

Ups and downs

Esterly said at VIA there have been some passengers who have called to cancel flight reservations due to fears about coronavirus but the overall impact is not clear.

“When I talk to the ticket counters, I hear this, ‘Hey, our flight’s full’ one time,” he said. “The next time, ‘They’re a little light today.’ So I can’t tell in contrast to last year what that is. I can only speculate and right now I speculate that we are going to be down but it won’t be as drastic as others.”

On Friday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin floated ideas about helping the U.S. airline industry financially.

“That is the next priority on my list,” he told business news channel CNBC.

Esterly said it isn’t too early to think about the implications of a long-term slowdown for domestic air carriers and believes the administration is on the right track.

“If we’re not there yet, we’re getting awfully close,” he said of possible government aid. “The airlines, I think, have been doing very well over the last few years and that truly helps.”

Cleaning frenzy

In response to the coronavirus. Esterly said Valley International has been on a mission to thoroughly clean and sanitize all parts of the airport, concentrating on high-traffic areas.

And it isn’t once or twice a day, he said, but the sanitizing effort is constant.

“I’ve always thought we have a very clean terminal building, but it is super-clean at this point,” he said. “We have floaters on our janitorial staff that do nothing but. Utilizing hospital disinfectant, they go around and take care of all the hand rails, all the high-touch surface areas, push buttons, ticket counters … the escalator handrails are done at least every hour, particularly when flights are coming through, and then they’re done again.”

Another positive is the new terrazzo in the upstairs concourse, the installation of which is all but finished. Like the downstairs, it’s much easier to keep clean than the carpeting it replaced.

“We have hand-sanitizing stations as well throughout the terminal building and all this is to try to minimize risk to our passengers, risk to our employees as well risk to our air carriers,” Esterly said. “We want to make sure, at the least, that people see what we’re doing to protect them and the airline customers.”