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Turbulent Conditions Ahead
Daron Cristy, Contributing Writer & Photographer

The Captain has turned on the seat belt sign. Please fasten your seat belts, and prepare for some heavy turbulence...

The effects of the coronavirus have been widespread; it is not IF you have been affected, it is HOW you have been affected. Plans have changed. Friends who were visiting are now staying home. Business meetings are being deferred. Uncertainty is everywhere.

San Diego International Airport is the busiest single runway airport in the United States and the third busiest in the world. From a distance San Diego International Airport seems pretty much like business as usual. Planes are arriving and departing with regular frequency, shuttle buses are running, and the traffic enforcement officers are out.

However, on closer inspection, it is evident that the pandemic has greatly reduced the number of travelers. Curbsides for pickups and check-in aisles are close to empty.

Business is definitely not usual.


Monday, March 16, 2020 - San Diego County had confirmed 47 cases of COVID-19. This increased to 80 confirmed cases by Wednesday, March 18, 2020. On Thursday that increased by 25 to bring the total to 105 confirmed cases. Saturday, March 21, 2020 the confirmed cases have risen to 159 and that increased to 205 by Sunday.

The first COVID19 related death in San Diego County was reported on Sunday, March 22, 2020.

This situation is constantly developing. Actions and reactions change daily, even hourly.

San Diego International Airport (KSAN), formerly known as Lindbergh Field, is a major gateway to the community, with over 23 million domestic travelers and over one million international travelers every year. This averages to 63,000 domestic and over 2,700 international passengers each and every day.

The Embarcadero, in the San Diego Bay, normally, is a very active cruise ship terminal. The airport often operates as an entry and departure point for those travelers.

On March 12, 2020, San Diego Airport tweeted "The health and safety of our travelers, employees, and all airport users are SAN's top priorities. SAN is working closely with public health authorities to help manage and mitigate the spread of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)."

However, actions speak louder than words. During a visit to the airport in the evening on March 16, 2020 these areas of concern were observed:

  • Only a small number of employees were wearing masks and/or gloves. This included all areas observed: traffic, check-in, maintenance, security, taxi, rideshare, chauffeured transportation, TSA and Harbor Police.
  • Restaurants were open, seating areas available and no restaurant employees were seen wearing masks or gloves.
  • No evidence of additional cleaning or sanitizing within the airport was witnessed.
  • No signage was evident, and no audible notifications were heard in direct relation to the pandemic.
  • The public areas and restrooms were clean and clear, but does that alone suffice?

A follow-up visit was made to the airport on Wednesday March 18, 2020. Fewer passengers were seen wearing masks and gloves this time. Food courts were still open, dine-in restaurants were still open, and still no signage or announcements were being made - yet the ability for these communications is there within the airport. The Starbucks and Ryan Bros coffee shops were closed. The general cleanliness of the airport was good including the restrooms. However, again, there were no cleaning crews seen working at that time.

Comparing this to Hong Kong International Airport (which was visited on January 28, 2020), the difference is dramatic. With over 70 million passengers a year, Hong Kong addressed the situation more aggressively from the beginning: all airport employees (direct, contract and concession) were wearing masks and gloves, cleaning crews were working constantly sanitizing common areas, signage was evident advising travelers to use caution and announcements were being made over the public address system every few minutes. Inspection stations were numerous as well as thermal image scanners being used. It was very evident that the Hong Kong Airport authorities were actively trying to contain the spread.

San Diego County has implemented some drastic changes: gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited, bars and nightclubs are closed, restaurants are takeout only, casinos are closed, cinemas are closed, gyms are closed, non-essential employees are being encouraged to stay home.

However, due to the small number of confirmed cases in San Diego County, it seems like there is an abundance of complacency. Major airports have a large volume of transient passengers, and San Diego is no exception.

Looking at the airport makes it obvious that the number of travelers has been greatly reduced, but there are still people traveling. That trend is predicted to continue over the next few weeks and possibly the next few months. The airline travel business is in for some major turbulence.

Montgomery Field (KMYF) has placed the control tower under limited operation.

Montgomery Field operations offices have restricted access to the offices to employees only.

Casa Machado, the onsite airport restaurant has been closed until further notice.

Gibbs FBO at Montgomery Field closed access to their office facility due to potential exposure from a coronavirus air ambulance crew. Aircraft fuel, oil, and tug services are still available.

Chicago Midway International Airport (KMDW) evacuated their control tower, closed operations and reverted the airspace to Class E due to a COVID-19 scare. This alone has affected around 400 flights.


On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (KLAS) closed its control tower due to a COVID-19 case.


So why are the reactions of the airport so important for San Diego County?

Employees at the airport are inherently at an elevated risk of being infected. Everyday they are exposed to hundreds if not thousands of passengers from around the world and from areas that may have a higher rate of infection, and as we can see, cruise line passengers heading home. Whilst in the airport, people often end up congregating in specific areas such as check-in, security check points, and departure areas, making transfer easier - not to forget passengers actually being in the close proximity whilst in an airplane. Employees of the airport, once they finish work, return to their homes in the San Diego community. If they are a carrier, they could be bringing the virus not only to their homes and families but also to their community.

It seems that precautionary masks and gloves are available but are used at the employee's discretion, even though the use of N95 (CDC/NIOSH certified) respirators can reduce or slow the spread of the virus in crowded work environments. It does seem like employees have been instructed to maintain distance from others, and older employees have been told to stay home.

Employees have also been instructed to inform their supervisors should they show any signs of infection and stay home. However, as it has become evident, people can transport this virus without showing any symptoms. Symptoms can also take up to two weeks to show after infection.

It was mentioned that staff meetings have been scaled back and now comprise two or three employees-dispersion of information now being done through email.

Even though the airport employees (direct, contract and concession) have a heavily raised threat of contracting this virus, no known testing has been performed at this stage.

On Monday the ultra-luxury Seven Seas Splendor with Regent Cruises was off schedule and docked at the Embarcadero. The maximum capacity of this cruise ship is 825 guests and 540 crew. Followed on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, MS Eurodam, a signature class cruise ship with the Holland America line, docked at the cruise ship terminal in San Diego (under the Port Authority). It has a passenger capacity of 2,104 and crew of 929. Those passengers disembarked and headed home, but what was their way to get home? It must be assumed that a large percentage headed two miles to San Diego International Airport to fly home. Thursday, MS Eurodam was scheduled to leave the San Diego Embarcadero with only the crew onboard, heading to Ensenada in Mexico.

It should be asked of the San Diego Port Authority why they seem to be doing so little to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially when the president and San Diego government are asking so much of its community. How can the community be expected to follow guidelines when branches of the issuing authority, such as the San Diego Port Authority, do not seem to be following the guidelines?

How was the COVID-19 originally brought from China to the United States? Most likely, by airplane and straight through our international airports.

Is this restricted just to San Diego Airport? A passenger flying with American Airlines on March 16, 2020, noted that the flight through Phoenix to San Diego was at about 50% capacity. Only a few of the passengers and none of the crew were wearing masks or gloves. No announcements were made in regard to the epidemic.

In Phoenix the concession stands and dine-in restaurants were open.

On January 31, 2020, travel restrictions were imposed on most foreign nationals who have traveled to China within the past 14 days prior to entry. Foreign nationals banned from entering the United States who have been in China.

February 14, 2020 - San Diego County declared a health emergency and proclaimed a local emergency to deal with COVID-19.

February 29, 2020 - Restrictions expanded to include all aliens who were physically present within the Islamic Republic of Iran within the past 14 days prior to entry.

March 4, 2020 - A state of emergency was proclaimed by Governor Gavin Newsom. San Diego County's proclamation will remain in effect until terminated by the Board of Supervisors.

March 11, 2020 - The World Health Organization defines COVID-19 as a pandemic as 118,000 cases are reported in 114 countries.

As of midnight, March 13, 2020 - Heavy travel restrictions with the European community excluding the United Kingdom and Ireland.

As of midnight, March 16, 2020 - The travel restrictions extended to the United Kingdom and Ireland. British Airways flew its last flight into San Diego on Monday and departed back to London Heathrow in the evening. Japan Airlines has cancelled their San Diego flights on March 21, 23, 25 and 27. Edelweiss Air only flies a seasonal route to San Diego which begins in June, and at this time, that has not been affected.

Tuesday March 17, 2020 - US embassies and consulates may temporarily modify or suspend consular services.

Wednesday March 18, 2020 - Travel across the Canadian border has been restricted. The State Department is suspending routine visa services in most countries. USNS Mercy (T-AH-19), which is based in San Diego, has been called to duty to assist local medical services on the West Coast. The exact destination has yet to be confirmed, but it will take up to five days to ready the medical ship.

Thursday, March 19, 2020 - The Department of State has issued a level 4 alert – Do Not Travel. Americans are been advised not to take any non-essential travel at this time or risk being stranded at their destination.

Friday, March 19, 2020 – Travel across the Mexico border has been restricted. Passport agencies will only accept applications from customers with life-or-death emergencies who plan to travel within 72 hours. Some passport acceptance facilities may also suspend service.

Sunday, March 22, 2020 – The President approved a disaster declaration for California, New York and Washington. The National Guard has been activated for those states and will remain under the jurisdiction of the respective governor, though they will be federally funded.

US citizens and legal permanent residents will be permitted to return from the United Kingdom, Ireland and the European Schengen area (The Schengen Area are 26 European states that have officially abolished all passport and all other types of border control at their mutual borders. These comprise Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.)

Return from all countries of concern is only permitted through thirteen select airports that have implemented enhanced screening procedures.

San Diego International Airport was not designated as one of these airports and has not implemented enhanced screening procedures.

US citizens and permanent residents returning to the United States who have been in China in the previous 14 days may be subject to up to 14 days of quarantine.

American Airlines has planned to reduce domestic operations initially by 20% in April and increases that to 30% in May as well as reducing international flights by 75%. United is reducing capacity by 50% and cutting jobs. Delta Airlines will be reducing capacity by up to 70%. Southwest will reduce capacity by at least 20%. These are huge cuts which will inevitability lead to work furloughs and/or layoffs.

Fewer flights will mean fewer pilots, crew and all those required for the support services.

Speculation is that there will be a $50 billion assistance and loan plan for the passenger airlines and a further $8 billion for cargo carriers.

Chicago-based Boeing is asking for $60 billion in assistance for US Aerospace Industry. Boeing also announced that they will be closing their Washington state facilities for two weeks beginning on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 due to the companies first COVID19 related death on Sunday, March 22,2020.

As of Sunday, March 22, 2020, there have been twenty-nine Boeing employees who have tested positive for the Coronavirus.

Both the San Diego Harbor Police and San Diego International Airport were contacted to participate in this article, but no response to our questions were received.

By Daron Cristy -
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