Airport Pilot

A pilot enters Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport after kissing his family goodbye at an otherwise empty departures drop-off area Tuesday.

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The state’s busiest airport has seen a roughly 80% drop in travelers since the beginning of the spread of COVID-19 in Montana, a sharp turn in what was projected to be a record-breaking year.

“It’s a ghost town here,” said Brian Sprenger, director of the Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport. “We’re at levels we haven’t seen for at least 25 years.”

Sprenger said the airport is serving about 20% of the passengers it normally does this time of year. Parts of the concourse are closed so airport staff can focus on sterilizing the areas passengers will go through. He said there are “very few” international travelers coming into the airport — in part because of the travel restrictions and advisories imposed by the U.S. and international governments.

The airport has also split its staff into two groups. One group works during one 14-day period then rotates with the second.

“That is so if there was an issue or something did come up and we had to continue operation with the other group, we’d have them standing by,” Sprenger said. “I think often people forget how vital the airport is in times of emergencies,” including cargo flights, life flights and doctors traveling to different hospitals, he said.

“We have a number of doctors and nurses that live in Bozeman but are vital to the health care systems in other parts of the country,” Sprenger said. “They travel regularly.”

All food services outside of security have closed, and the restaurant inside security is offering to-go food only. Sprenger said travelers are still able to sit at the tables in the restaurant, over half of which have been removed.

“That is actually the area where we can best enforce social distancing,” he said. “We can make sure that we’re cleaning and sanitizing those tables after every customer.”

Airlines are assessing the situation and deciding how to reduce flights to and from the airport effectively, Sprenger said, but it’s not quite as simple as just canceling a plane.

“It’s a complicated thing to draw down an airline because you have to account for maintenance cycles of the aircraft and where the crews are. It just doesn’t happen overnight,” Sprenger said. “Anybody knows during a snowstorm how chaotic it gets. Airlines are trying to avoid that chaos as well as they draw this down.”

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.