Omaha’s Eppley Airfield was nearly devoid of travelers on a day when it should have been a hub of activity.
The floors of the baggage area showed a fresh shine Monday afternoon. Employees at the check-in area chatted with one another — no lines. Of the few passengers coming and going, fewer wanted to talk to a newspaper reporter about their travel plans.
Outside, Cheryl Jeanneret waited curbside for a ride.
The 56-year-old hails from Omaha but lives in Eugene, Oregon. A friend unexpectedly died, and Jeanneret came to Nebraska for the funeral. She couldn’t bear to miss saying goodbye to someone she had known for 44 years.
But the funeral was postponed — then, so was her first flight back to the West Coast — so she was forced to stay an extra day.
As the United States largely shuts down to defeat the coronavirus pandemic, Eppley Airfield has felt a precipitous drop in air travel.
A typical March day would see 7,300 passengers departing, said Steve McCoy, the Omaha Airport Authority’s director of air service and business development. Last week, the daily number dropped to 2,100 on average.
A normal day would have 80 flights out of Eppley. At one point Monday, the 24 hours ahead had 21 departures canceling.
Travelers are still coming and going, McCoy said. But in the time ahead, McCoy expects airlines to cancel more flights and the number of travelers to decline even more.
“It’s definitely dynamic,” he said.
The current recommendations largely advise against travel — the virus is spreading and creating an unknown, developing situation in major population centers. Business meetings are canceled, major attractions are closed, even funerals locally must be kept at 10 or fewer people.
Gov. Pete Ricketts said Tuesday that people who have been to Denver; Kansas City, Missouri; and Chicago, as well as other national and international places with high numbers of people infected with the novel coronavirus, should quarantine themselves at home for 14 days to keep from spreading the virus to others.
But the situation stops short of a full shutdown.
The Wall Street Journal reported that government agencies were considering ordering a shutdown of virtually all passenger flights within the U.S. The newspaper said President Donald Trump and his advisers are reluctant to order a shutdown partly because passenger planes also carry U.S. mail and vital cargo.
Even so, major airlines are drafting plans in case they must shut down domestic flights because of a lack of air traffic controllers or airport screeners.
Scott Tarry, director of the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the economic situation has rapidly turned for airlines.
“This was a sea change very quickly where people started canceling flights as fast as they could,” Tarry said.
For people whose travel plans have been canceled, the airlines are making some accommodations, including waiving change fees. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a refund if you or the airline canceled.
Southwest, for instance, says customers can simply rebook canceled tickets up to 60 days from the original flight. Otherwise, the airline is offering to credit back the cost for a ticket to use by June 30, 2021, which is longer than Southwest’s normal rebooking credit.
Tarry said he believes the airline industry has handled customer service pretty well. But he acknowledged that different types of travelers might have different perspectives on that.
Frequent travelers know how the ticket systems work and know how to deal with credits for future use, Tarry said. But people who don’t travel often might be struggling with how things work, he said.
“I’m sure there’s quite a bit of frustration on that end,” Tarry said.
Tim Fleming, president and chief operating officer of Omaha’s Travel and Transport, said airlines generally do not issue refunds but instead offer credits.
Still, Fleming said it’s worth asking the airline for a refund. If someone is a one-time traveler with an extenuating circumstance, he said, “I think airlines are being pretty good with that.”
If you’re contacting an airline, Fleming recommended sending an email explaining your circumstances, because wait times on airline phone systems are significant right now.
Internationally, a slight uptick in air travel is showing up in Asia, Fleming said, but it will be a while before that happens elsewhere.
“Let’s hope that we get back to a point where people feel comfortable traveling again,” he said.
Even though Eppley is open, McCoy said travelers will see some changes at the airport.
Parking has shifted around so people can avoid close contact on official airport shuttles. McCoy said the airport’s south economy lot and its south canopy lot are closed, and the airport authority has dropped rates on its parking garages and the north economy lot, which also is within walking distance.
Some food and beverage stops stationed before the security checkpoints have closed, McCoy said, so more of those offerings are available at the gates.
If you’re still traveling, McCoy’s most important advice: Stay in contact with your airline about your flight status.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.