Coronavirus forcing airlines to cut flights to make up for lost ridership

Coming home from vacation Tuesday, Kathy Behrens waited until she was exiting Long Island MacArthur Airport before she removed her mask. The 69-year-old Mastic Beach woman has asthma and wasn’t taking any chances.

Not far away, Mike Napolitano was keeping track of his four boys rambling around the terminal, making sure his 8-year-old wasn’t putting his fingers in his mouth.

Joe and Marilyn Monteith of Bayport, 80 and 75, respectively, said the flight home from Florida was “scary” and they were washing their hands constantly.

Concerns about coronavirus have permeated airports. In the Ronkonkoma terminal, the staff busily cleaned seats, doors and restrooms. There were numerous rows of empty seats and long stretches when the baggage claim area seemed desolate. Several people said they wore masks, if not gloves, on their flights — and couldn’t wait to get home.

Airlines say they expect a downturn in ridership. Behind the scenes at New York-area airports, airlines such as Delta and American have announced deep cuts in domestic and international schedules, as the fears over coronavirus are causing bookings to plunge.

Three airlines fly into MacArthur Airport — American, Frontier and Southwest.

Meanwhile, American said it would cut the number of domestic flights in April by 7.5%, and reduce international capacity for the summer by 10%. 

Delta Air Lines said it will cut the number of international flights from 20% to 25%, and reduce domestic flights by 10% to 15%. Delta is instituting a hiring freeze and offering employees voluntary leave options. The airline also is deferring $500 million in capital spending, officials said.

“As the virus has spread, we have seen a decline in demand across all entities, and we are taking decisive action to protect Delta’s financial position,” CEO Ed Bastian said in a statement. 

Southwest chairman Gary Kelly sent an email to employees addressing what company officials call an alarming drop in bookings and sales due to the coronavirus, with an estimated impact of $200 million to $300 million in the month of March alone, according to a spokeswoman.

Kelly also said he will reduce his salary, which has not changed since 2017, by 10%, the spokeswoman said.

The Port Authority, which operates Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia airports, said it has increased cleanings of restrooms and surfaces frequently touched by passengers. All areas will be disinfected on a regular basis using EPA-approved and CDC-endorsed disinfectants, officials said. 

At MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, Bobbie Sheperis, 79, sat alone among a row of chairs in the terminal, waiting for a worker to bring her a wheelchair. The former Long Islander said she was anxious to get back to her home in North Carolina. She must travel with a small breathing machine.

“I want to get back to North Carolina before anything else comes out about it,” she said of the coronavirus. 

She pulled out her little bottle of hand sanitizer from her bag, and held it up like it had incredible value. Only a third of the liquid was left, and the airport store was out.

“Hope that’ll get me home,” she said.

At the Frontier Airlines ticket counter, the staff was wearing purple plastic gloves, and placed a 67-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer and a box of tissues on the counter. Behind the counter, staff kept a spray bottle of disinfectant and some Clorox wipes.

Nancy Smalley said she came home from Florida with more worries than when she arrived there. She had been visiting her father in an assisted living facility, and Tuesday morning the place went on to a quarantine due to the virus. No one was sick yet, but no visitors are allowed in now, she said.

“He is 83, and for the elderly it’s life and death,” said Smalley, 55, of Smithtown, who also wore a mask during her flight home. 

Looking ahead, she noted that she has a trip in May to Egypt for a river cruise. She’s hoping the coronavirus is a memory by then.

“I just hope it goes away,” she said.

With Carl MacGowan

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