We’ve seen airlines slash capacity. The skies are far less crowded than they were a couple months ago. Is it time now for more airports to consider similar moves?
Some airports made the decision already. Hong Kong International Airport closed its mid-field terminal, for example, in part to park grounded planes and in part because there is simply no need for the additional gate space to be open when so few passengers and flights are operating. At London’s Heathrow Airport British Airways closed its T5C concourse, similarly using the space to park aircraft while consolidating operations down. Virgin Atlantic also moved its couple remaining flights at Gatwick over to Heathrow for improved efficiencies.
Delhi’s Indira Ghandi International Airport closed T3, prior to the nation going on full lock-down this week. Manchester International Airport also closed its Terminals 2 & 3, consolidating operations into T1. Rome Fiumicino closed a terminal, too.
In Paris, Orly Airport is expected to close at the end of the month, with any remaining operations transferred across town to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
But in the United States that same pattern is not playing out. Even as US carriers cut operations (though not nearly as deeply as in Europe or Asia), the airports remain mostly open as usual. Delta Air Lines indicated it would scale back gate usage in Atlanta, potentially leading to a terminal closure there. United Airlines closed down part of its operations at Terminal A in Newark and at Terminal B in Houston, though it is unclear if they are fully closed.
Opportunities for further closures remain, however. And some could be more dramatic than others.
In New York City, for example, two options present themselves.
At JFK Airport, Terminal 2 already closed its TSA checkpoint, with Delta directing all passengers to clear at T4. As Delta continues to draw down its operations it will be able to suspend the “JFK Jitney” shuttle bus service and dispatch flights only from T4.
Terminal 7 is now down to a minimal number of flights such that it likely could benefit from a similar shift.
While T2 moving to T4 was easy as it is all Delta, T7 is different with multiple carriers all needing somewhere to go. Shifting the planes to T4 or T8 (especially for American Airlines‘ oneworld partners) could solve that problem without too much difficulty.
At T4 the larger international planes are no longer frequent visitors, leaving gates available. Similarly, the cuts to AA’s international operations at T8 open up a lot of capacity, especially around what used to be the peak late-night departure bank, the same time T7 is at its busiest.
Update: Apparently the TSA was already ahead of the game on this one, short-staffed and closing T7 on March 25th.
The numbers are a bit more challenging across town at LaGuardia, but with US carriers reducing capacity in the coming weeks an interesting opportunity presents itself: What if LaGuardia closed to commercial traffic?
Almost all of the airlines operating at LaGuardia also have service at either Newark or JFK Airport. Southwest Airlines is a notable exception, having just recently closed its Newark operation. But, for the most part, operations could be consolidated into one of the other two airports. And there are several potential benefits from that shift.
Reducing the number of employees required to travel to the airport comes with advantages and disadvantages. It would likely mean job cuts or furloughs but also could mean reduced exposure potential in a time where residents are encouraged to limit interaction with others.
Far more significant could be the benefit to the Air Traffic Control network. The NYC area faces staffing pressure under normal circumstances and these are anything but.
Facilities tied to LaGuardia, JFK and the NYC area all have been closed for cleaning in recent days, limiting the dispatch capacity available. And with some local controllers now quarantined the staffing challenges are more significant. As of Tuesday afternoon, for example, LaGuardia is limiting capacity due to staffing shortages tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
By closing LaGuardia and also closing the tower at LaGuardia those ATC resources could presumably be redeployed to assist at JFK or ZNY.
And, assuming the Terminal B construction project continues, things could be rather easier without worrying about planes and passengers and traffic.
Similar benefits might be realized in the Bay Area should operations at San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose consolidate. Maybe even close Long Beach and move those flights to Orange County or LAX. Orlando could also see similar benefits if Sanford ops were to merge in, though Allegiant is the only carrier in Sanford and it does not fly at MCO, raising staffing issues similar to those Southwest would face in New York.
Such moves are not ideal for passengers, but it is better than flying near empty flights or not operating the flights at all. It is all highly unlikely to happen, but it probably should, at least during the peak pandemic period. The potential upside is very real.
For a (generally) up-to-date listing of airlines and their operational levels check out this spreadsheet maintained by PaxEx.Aero and other industry experts.
More on COVID-19 and the airlines affected
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