Augusto Bernal, public information officer for the Houston Airport System, said the virus's exact effect on passenger travel will not be known until mid- or late-April when airlines submit passenger data for the month of March to the airport system, but officials are anticipating a large hit.
Although March data is not yet available, January and February data sets show that usually, millions of passengers travel through the two Houston airports every month. IAH saw 3.66 million and 3.37 million domestic and international travelers in January and February, respectively, while HOU saw 1.09 million and 1.03 million travelers in the same months, according to Houston Airport System data.
Additionally, flight information on fly2houston.com, a website operated by the airport system, for IAH shows that at least 83 of 197 departure flights for March 3 were cancelled. At HOU, at least 43 of 99 departure flights were cancelled March 3, per fly2houston.com.
"We expect the numbers to be significantly down just because of the cancellation and reductions that are ongoing, but we really don't have an idea how empty these flights are or how they're operating," Bernal said.
TSA checkpoints close at IAH
Due to low passenger travel, Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at IAH have been consolidated to make better use of resources and personnel, Bernal said. TSA checkpoints at HOU have not been closed.
In numerous announcements between March 19-24, the airport system stated that TSA was closing down checkpoints at IAH's Terminal A North, Terminal B, Terminal C South and Terminal D. Only three TSA checkpoints in IAH's five terminals are operational, meaning passengers cannot access the terminals through the closed checkpoints.
The checkpoints that are open are operating on limited hours as of April 2, according to an April 1 news release from the airport system. Terminal A South will be open 3:45 a.m.-10 p.m.; Terminal C North will be open 4 a.m.-9 p.m.; and Terminal E will be open 4 a.m.-10 p.m., per the release. Exit lanes in the terminals will remain staffed 24 hours a day.
Gov. Greg Abbott also extended his executive order March 30 to add more places to a growing list of cities and states from which inbound flyers must self-quarantine. People flying to Texas from the states of California, Louisiana, Washington as well as from the cities of Atlanta, Ga., Chicago, Ill., Detroit, Mich., and Miami, Fla. must self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
Virus impacts airport economy
Low passenger travel volume due to the coronavirus has the ability to hit all aspects of the airport's economy, Bernal said.
"Low passenger traffic affects the airlines, car rental companies, concessionaires and, consequently, the airport," he said. "[Houston] City Hall is working on negotiating the deferral of payments to try and alleviate the situation. We are waiting on a resolution."
Houston City Council approved a measure March 25 allowing negotiations to begin on a proposal to defer $180 million in payments to the Houston Airport Fund from April through the end of November, Community Impact Newspaper reported. At the end of that period, regular payments would resume, and deferred payments would begin getting paid back by January 2021, the proposal stated.
Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin said he had reservations about allowing the airlines and airport businesses to defer payments, but he said he approved of allowing the city to enter negotiations.
“I think we’re going to see a great deal of consolidation and bankruptcy,” Martin said of the airline industry. “But giving us the opportunity to sit down and talk with them ... will make sure we’ll be paid back in the next couple of months.”
Visit https://fly2houston.com/covid-19 for more information on how the coronavirus is impacting IAH.
Emma Whalen contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to cite that the departure flight information was gathered from fly2houston.com.