BY MATT WILSON and MARK REAGAN
McALLEN — The McAllen International Airport is critical, essential infrastructure that will remain open as local officials respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s also a hot spot for out-of-state and out-of-country travelers — one that has been impacted by the global pandemic as airlines have canceled thousands of flights across the country.
The airport has seen many flights cancelled in recent days as the demand for air travel plummets with carriers responding by reducing service. But American and United both operated at least two flights into MFE on Thursday for the trickle of passengers traveling. Aeromar operated its Mexico City flight Thursday and UPS continues its daily freight flight.
For officials here, there was on bright spot Wednesday night upon the Senate’s passage of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill, which includes $10 billion in relief for airports, like the McAllen International Airport, across the country.
Elizabeth Suarez, aviation director, said in a statement that the city of McAllen worked closely with industry groups and the Rio Grande Valley delegation to Washington D.C. to support the airport relief package.
“The funding will be based on entitlement funds and will allow airports flexibility for use of added airport funds towards operating costs, capital costs or debt service costs,” Suarez said. “This will allow airports to weather any impact to operating revenue resulting from less air service activity.”
What kind of funding will the McAllen International Airport be looking at from this?
Right now, Suarez said that information is expected to start rolling out in the next few days.
In the meantime, however, it’s business as usual at the airport.
“There are no regulatory impacts for McAllen International Airport resulting from the state and local response to COVID-19,” Suarez said. “The airport is considered critical infrastructure and the staff is essential, and the airport remains open as normal.”
The airport is working to educate staff and travelers about safe practices as residents and travelers learn to grapple with social distancing and the new normal of knowing there’s in invisible threat in the form of a virus that spread across the world and has reached the Rio Grande Valley.
In response, Suarez said that airport officials have placed Centers for Disease Control signs in all restrooms, as well as digital signage, to educate travelers and staff about COVID-19.
The airport is also increasing the frequency for all sanitation using Environmental Protection Agency certified disinfectants by maintenance staff.
There is deep cleaning occurring four times daily in all restrooms, common areas and administrative offices.
The airport also hired a vendor to conduct weekly deep sanitation procedures in all restrooms.
Governor Greg Abbott also announced Thursday afternoon that any travelers flying into Texas from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut or New Orleans, Louisiana will be required to stay in quarantine for two weeks or for length of stay if that is shorter than 14 days.
Abbott said this order may expand to include California and Washington, if needed.
Late Thursday morning, McAllen International Airport had noticeably less traffic and passengers could be seen wearing surgical gloves and face masks.
For Aida Espinoza, who flew from Detroit to visit her parents, life in McAllen appeared much closer to normal than Detroit — a city that as of Thursday had 717 cases and 15 deaths from COVID-19.
“Over there it’s like no one, it’s bad. Grocery stores are closing at like six or seven,” she said. “Here it’s better. I was standing outside and there’s still cars and people outside.”
Espinoza said she flew here via Dallas. She said airports were cleaner than she expected and that flight attendants constantly encouraged passengers to sanitize their seats and trays while in the air.
“It was really good actually, I’ve never seen that attention,” she said.
There was also hardly anyone on the flight.
“From Detroit to Dallas there was maybe 30 people, but they separated all of us, every passenger had their own row,” Espinoza said. “From Dallas to here there were maybe 20 people … we were all separated again.”
She is expecting to stay in the Valley for two to three weeks before returning to Michigan.
“Hopefully everything settles down by then,” she said.