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In the Age of Coronavirus, Portland's Airport Is a Near Ghost Town

Travel is down 90 percent from March 2019, as airlines cut back on flights.

By Julia Silverman March 26, 2020

Image: Shutterstock

Remember a week or two ago, when there was a rash of stories about bargain-basement prices on flights to exotic locales, as airlines tried to lure customers amid rising concern over the spread of coronavirus? 

But then the borders closed and the shelter in place orders kicked in, and now, traffic at Portland International Airport has fallen off by a stunning 90 percent. 

Usually during March, more than 50,000 people pass through the airport, says Kama Simonds, public information officer for the Port of Portland. Forecasts for March 2020 call for between 3,000 and 5,000 total. 

“It’s not lawless,” she says, of the emptied-out airport. “It just seems like the middle of the night when its the middle of the day.” 

Unlike Florida, Oregon has not required travelers coming from the hotspot of New York City to self-quarantine for 14 days. And Gov. Kate Brown has not followed Hawaii’s example and asked all visitors to the state to postpone their travel for a month. (The last Hawaiian Airlines flight to Honolulu for the foreseeable future left PDX this morning.)

International flights are also on ice for now, save for routes between Portland and Mexico, though who knows how long that will last, given calls to close the Mexican border to Americans (ironic, no?). 

So who is traveling? Simonds says there are people for whom travel is essential, even now—aid workers, lawmakers, and those going to be with sick family members among them. The Transportation Service Administration has relaxed its limits on fluids to allow passengers to carry 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer on board. 

"And it is worth noting that passenger jets carry a portion of US mail, and there are cargo flights carrying food and medical supplies,” Simonds says. 

Airlines have been reducing the frequency of their flights from Portland, she adds — no longer seven times a day to the Bay Area, when once or twice might be enough to handle current demand. Alaska Airline’s announcement on Wednesday that it was reducing flights by 70 percent is likely to mean more service cutbacks for Portland, since the airline is the state’s busiest carrier. 

Amidst the quiet, there are still restaurants open offering grab-and-go food for airline employees, Port of Portland workers, TSA agents, and the few passengers, Simonds says. And a few idling planes have quietly found their way to Hillsboro Airport, where they will be parked, waiting to be called back to service when the virus eventually wanes. 

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