CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WKBW) — Masks and gloves are essential for many passengers flying during COVID-19.
"It’s eerie, I’ll say that much," Antonio Whitsett said sporting both while flying from Charlotte to buffalo Wednesday. The Buffalo native, in town for a quick trip before he returns to his new home in Washington Heights in New York City.
"It’s scary. It’s very dead and very scary. You hear ambulances every single day, 24/7 you hear ambulances. They tell you to stay home," Whitsett said.
Another passenger at arrivals, James Harris came back to Western New York from Charlotte, as well, for his twin daughter's birthday. He said the flight was smooth but strange.
"You just used to seeing hundreds of people get on the plane with you and now – 15 people that’s just, that’s just kind of shocking," Harris said.
Typically during this time of year, the Buffalo Niagara International Airport sees 7,000 people in and out of the doors every day, but it’s now seeing less than 200.
"It’s hard to imagine. If somebody had told me at the beginning of march that we would lose that much traffic, I would have called them crazy. There’s no way that would happen. And it just came on us like a tsunami," William Vanecek said. He's served as the NFTA's Aviation Director for 21 years.
The airport is seeing few passengers, gated vendors and countless cancellations. These days he said the planes that actually take off are sometimes flying with just five passengers.
"It’s just something I’ve never seen," Vanecek said. He continued, "Think about the old western towns that everybody moved away from. They became ghost towns, that’s analogues to this. This is what’s happened. There’s no one here.”
Early on in the pandemic, about 30% of the airport’s passenger base was wiped out as the Canadian border closed.
"It’s all dried up so it’s just kind of exasperating the problem we have," Vanecek said.
Airport employees, for the most part, are considered essential even as ticket counters and terminals remain quiet. Cleaning is constant and the wellbeing of staff and passengers is a top priority according to Vanecek.
"Constantly wiping, constantly cleaning. You walk through the airport, you’ve seen it now, it’s just a shiny…it’s just as beautiful as it’s ever been in here. And that’s really a reflection of our custodial staff. They’ve done a great job of keeping up with that," Vanecek said.
Starting Thursday, everyone interacting with the public will be required to wear masks via Governor Andrew Cuomo’s orders.
"We’ve got masks now at the airport. We don’t have enough as everybody will tell you. We’re going to be careful about how long those will be in place, hopefully people can reuse them. But we’re looking for more," he said.
Now a little relief, the recent CARES Act signed by the President in late March provides $10 billion to airports across the united states. A combined $23 million of that has been granted here to the NFTA. A number Vanecek said is fair and needed.
"We’re going to use that to pay our employees, we’re going to make sure we can still cover our debt payments that’s a very important part of this and it’s important that we use that wisely," Vanecek said.
As for the $80 million renovation project, that will continue, as it is deemed essential too. Vanecek is eager to welcome more travelers back to the once vibrant terminals.
"There’s a lot of conjecture out there about what level of flight activity will happen by the end of the year, I’m going to be happy to get to 50% of what we had," he said.