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It's Not Just the Number of Flights That Are Down at Sky Harbor

Phoenix Sky Harbor AirportEXPAND
Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport
Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport / Facebook

The normally bustling terminals at Sky Harbor International Airport more resemble a dead suburban shopping mall these days than one of the country’s busiest travel hubs.

Last week, Sky Harbor officials reported that passenger travel at Sky Harbor was down 47 percent in March, which is historically the airport’s busiest month.

April statistics won’t be available until the end of May. But they're expected to be worse.

Fewer travelers means fewer customers at the many stores that line Sky Harbor’s terminals. Fewer customers means places like Cartel Coffee Lab close down their airport locations.

“We basically just got to the point where the sales were not sustainable for us to keep it staffed,” said Paul Haworth, who serves as the Tempe-based chain’s director of brand.

Cartel has closed all but two of its stores, laid off 90 percent of its roughly 130-person staff, and management has taken furloughs to keep the business afloat, Haworth said. Regarding the decision to close the airport location, he cited the high rents enacted by the city, which owns Sky Harbor, as a main reason for Cartel’s decision to close it down.

It's Not Just the Number of Flights That Are Down at Sky HarborEXPAND
Lauren Cusimano

As of this week, 64 restaurants and shops are closed in Terminal 4 (where Cartel was located) and 18 shops and restaurants are closed in Terminal 3, said Greg Roybal, a city of Phoenix spokesperson. Restaurants located outside of security are offering takeout only; many have also reduced their hours due to the decrease in demand.

Asked if the city was considering rent reductions at Sky Harbor in light of the COVID-19 slowdown, Roybal said, “We are still in discussions with all parties, and no agreements have been made.”

Cartel is still waiting to hear if its loan application from the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program is approved or not.

The airlines at Sky Harbor, meanwhile, aren’t currently burdened with such concerns, having already obtained their bailout.

Dan Landson, who serves as a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, tells Phoenix New Times that the Dallas-based carrier hasn’t furloughed or laid off any of its 4,600 full- and part-time employees in Phoenix to date.

But the future for Southwest, the second-largest carrier at Sky Harbor by passengers carried, is nevertheless uncertain. Southwest lost $94 million in the first quarter of 2020, marking its first operating loss since 2009.

During flights, flight attendants may ask passengers not to occupy the first three and last three rows of the aircraft so as to increase social distancing from the crew jump seats. Crews also invite passengers to “space out at comfortable distances" to support social distancing, Landson said. (Southwest’s open seating policy makes this easier.)

Whereas JetBlue has mandated that passengers and employees wear personal protective equipment on flights, Southwest is encouraging the practice.

That hasn’t stopped the coronavirus from spreading at Sky Harbor, though. Arizona’s first confirmed COVID-19 death was a Sky Harbor employee. And last week, it was reported that 70 American Airlines ground crew workers at Sky Harbor had tested positive for COVID-19.

Ian Petchenik, who serves as the director of communications for flight-tracking application FlightRadar24, says his tracking software projects that Sky Harbor will see somewhere between 600 and 700 flights a day in April, down from 1,400 a day in March. He expects carriers to enact much deeper cuts, in terms of flight frequencies and routes, than during the 2008 recession.

"It’s still early, but when things will get back to normal, we just don’t know," he said.

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