As New Mexico hits its 9-month low in COVID-19 virus cases, more people are deciding to take that long-awaited vacation– which means airports are bracing for a surge of fliers in the coming weeks. So, what's in store for New Mexicans as they head for the airport this summer? KSFR reporter Mary Lou Cooper reports.
Like butterflies escaping from their cocoons, Americans are finally ready to leave home and take to the skies. At the height of the pandemic, passengers of the Albuquerque Sunport dwindle to a few 100 a day, down 97% from pre-pandemic times. Today, the Albuquerque airport sees more than 10,000 passengers a day. That's many more than during the pandemic, but still far below 2019. So, what changes should fliers expect that New Mexico's busiest airport this summer? I talked with Sunport spokesperson Jonathan Small to find out more.
Jon, due to the pandemic. I haven't been to the Albuquerque airport in 15 months. In a few days. I'm flying out to Atlanta. What changes should I and other travelers expect at the airport?
Jonathan Small: There's a lot to cover in that question. But I'll start with our COVID safe policies which have remained in place throughout the pandemic. So, all staff and passengers are still required to wear face masks. For those that don't have one, we are providing them at no charge. We've also added additional hand sanitizer stations, spaced apart seating installed plexiglass partitions on all counters, and social distancing indicators throughout the terminal. We're also reminding travelers to adhere to COVID safe practices and providing regular updates via signage throughout the terminal and rotating PA announcements. Regarding our shops and restaurants, some of them are still closed or operating under abbreviated hours. But, we see more of them reopen and extend ours in recent weeks. They've been adhering to the state's guidelines. So, under the red-to-green framework, they're currently at 75% capacity. And I also want to mention that all our restaurants are New Mexico safe certified. Of course, each of our airline partners have implemented their own policies as well. Regarding TSA, they have also installed the plexiglass partitions or sneeze guards, on their counters. And they've recently deployed to new technologies designed to reduce physical contact at the checkpoint.
What about arriving and departing passengers? Are those protocols changed?
Jonathan Small: Everything that we've implemented since the early stages of the pandemic are still in place.
So, it's my understanding that if you're picking up arriving and departing passengers, you don't go inside, you're curbside only? Is that right?
Jonathan Small: Correct. We're encouraging people to utilize the curbside lanes instead of coming in to meet arriving passengers here in the terminal.
Okay. Let's talk about cleaning procedures at the airport. Tell us about your newest employee who helps disinfect surfaces. Who exactly is Breezy One?
Jonathan Small: Since the early stages of the pandemic, we've implemented an enhanced cleaning program. Our custodial crews, rather, increased their schedule and the frequency of their cleaning, especially with common touch points, such as elevator buttons and handrails and that kind of thing. But yeah, we've also worked with a local robotics company called Build with Robots to co-develop an autonomous system called Breezy One that safely sanitizes the terminal every night. So, that system is comprised of four robots, which have the terminal digitally mapped out. The custodial crews launched the system each night after the last flight. And the robots use a fogger system that broadcasts an environmentally safe disinfectant, which is actually developed by Sandia Labs.
Now, the Federal Aviation Administration reports that most of the complaints they receive about unruly behavior are related to passengers who refuse to wear mask. What has been your experience at the Sunport, in terms of misbehaving passengers inside the airport itself? What are the disputes and who deals with them?
Jonathon Small: Well, we're very fortunate and grateful that New Mexicans have been so compliant with the mask mandate. I think everyone's used to wearing masks at this point, and, you know, understand the importance of doing so while they're in the Sunport. So luckily, we haven't had to deal with many of those situations.
You have had some?
Jonathon Small: But very few really, it's been surprisingly refreshing. I think it's been better in New Mexico than maybe other states. So, you know, for passengers that don't have them, aviation police officers politely address the situation and direct them to the free mask distribution table we have here in the terminal and that usually resolves the situation.
Now just to follow up– am I correct that all passengers flying in and out of the Sunport must wear masks both onboard their aircraft and in the airport itself?
Jonathon Small: That is correct. Currently the CDC and TSA have mandated that masks must be worn in airports and a commercial aircraft until September 13th.
I understand that the Sunport has partnered with Southwest Labs to offer several COVID-19 testing options right at the airport with the cost borne by passengers. May I assume that those COVID tests are voluntary? And why are you offering them?
Jonathon Small: Yeah, Southwest Labs operates a COVID testing site here at the Sunport. It is located just before the checkpoint, near the meet and greet area. All tests are voluntary. Walk-ins and appointments are available. Travelers can choose between a rapid antigen test, a standard PCR test, and express PCR test. So, we essentially wanted to provide a convenient option for travelers, especially for those flying to destinations that require proof of a negative test upon arrival.
So, they will get instant results?
Jonathon Small: It depends on which option. The results vary from within a couple hour to 72 hours, depending on which option.
Well, that wraps up my questions. Do you have anything you'd like to add, Jon?
Jonathon Small: We're just so happy to be welcoming passengers back to the Sunport again, and ask that everyone continue to do their part to adhere to COVID safe practices. Arrive at least two hours ahead of their flight, because with the increases that we've been seeing recently, it's a little bit busier than you may think. We want to make sure that you're able to get through the TSA checkpoint and good time and make your flight.