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Staff photo by Tim Barber/ One passenger is seen checking in at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Monday, May, 4, 2020, shortly after 11 a.m. The airport has seen a 90% drop in passenger boardings.

Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport passenger boardings have plunged about 90% over a year ago as the air travel industry nationally struggles against COVID-19 headwinds.

"This isn't going to be a short trip," said Terry Hart, the airport's chief executive, about how quickly traffic may return. "This will be a long journey."

On Monday near noon, the airport terminal was practically empty. The main parking lot in front of the terminal, usually jammed on a typical day starting the work week, likely had well less than a couple hundred vehicles.

After six consecutive years of record-breaking passenger traffic, Lovell Field's string may come to an end in 2020.

But, there were people still flying.

Zanicia Moore of Chattanooga said she had just returned from Kansas, where she had been visiting a friend. Not many other passengers were on the flight, and those on the plane each had their own row, she said.

"It was spread out," Moore said. She had the trip scheduled for a while, she said, and wasn't worried about the coronavirus.

"There was no concern," Moore said.

Nathan Harris of Rome, Georgia, said he was planning on flying to Sarasota, Florida, on a business trip via a connecting flight in Charlotte.

But, he said, he'd never flown before and he backed out before getting on the plane.

"I was too scared. The plane was too small," Harris said, adding that it wasn't fear of the coronavirus that grounded him. He said at the airport that he was waiting for a friend to pick him up and they planned to drive to Florida.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, the economic impact of the coronavirus on the industry is expected to be nine times worse than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The association said the industry is estimated to have lost 8 million jobs.

"The ability to travel freely is not only a fundamental part of the American way of life, but also supports the livelihoods of millions," said association CEO Roger Dow. "We are very determined to return to travel and the new normal as quickly as circumstances will allow."

In Chattanooga, the airlines have sharply cut flights to meet traffic demand.

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COVID-19 slams air travel industry

On Monday, Lovell Field only had two flights to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Delta Air Lines, which flies the most people out of Chattanooga, typically has from 10 to 11 departures daily to Atlanta.

Also, no airlines were flying the usual nonstops to New York City or Washington, D.C., on Monday.

Hart said the airport has cut expenses as its revenues fall, including eliminating one position. The airlines, rental car companies and the airport's concessionaire have had reductions as well, he said.

The airport CEO said he expects passenger traffic eventually will return, and the airport isn't doing away with any capital projects, including the proposed new $25 million parking garage approved by the Airport Authority earlier this year.

"It's still moving forward," he said. "We believe volume will return. There will be a need."

But, Hart said, it's going to take time for confidence to build up.

"We'll rebound," he said. "We're no different from any other airport."

Hart said that as the economy reopens and safety restrictions are lifted, more people will fly. He said he saw more people fly last week than the week before.

"It's not masses. More people were coming through the building," Hart said.

Concerning safety, American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta, which all fly out of Chattanooga, will require face masks be worn by passengers, according to USA Today.

Also, more airports may use machines to check passengers for fever, and security checkpoints may have plexiglass shields between passengers and screeners, the newspaper said.

The U.S. travel industry on Monday said it has submitted to the White House and the state's governors a document containing detailed guidance for travel-related businesses to help keep their customers and employees safe as the country emerges from staying at home.

"As travel reopens, travelers need the confidence that safety measures are in place from their departure to their return home," said Dow about the document titled "Travel in the New Normal."

The guidance is focused on six main areas in which travel businesses should:

— Adapt operations, modify employee practices and/or redesign public spaces to help protect employees and customers.

— Consider implementing touchless solutions, where practical, to limit the opportunity for virus transmission.

— Adopt and implement enhanced sanitation procedures specifically designed to combat the transmission of COVID-19.

— Promote health screening measures for employees and isolate workers with possible COVID-19 symptoms and provide health resources to customers.

— Establish a set of procedures aligned with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance should an employee test positive for COVID-19.

— Follow best practices in food and beverage service to promote health of employees and customers.

Meanwhile, Warren Buffett said over the weekend that Berkshire Hathaway dumped all of its holdings in the airline sector.

"I was wrong about that business," Buffett said, according to MarketWatch.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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