Thursday was a slow work day for Liz Dean, which has become the norm lately because of COVID-19. But this week’s slog stands out even more. 

Stephanie Wolf |

Cashier Liz Dean works at a TODAY Store at Louisville’s airport on April 30, 2020.

Dean works as a cashier at a store at the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport.

She recalls long lines and customers shoulder to shoulder in the shop the Thursday before the 2019 Kentucky Derby. 

“It’s like we’re in the desert,” Dean said of how quiet it’s been at the airport lately, estimating she had only about four customers by early afternoon.

It’s a desert with a glut of Derby merchandise.

Dean points to stacks of Derby T-shirts and baseball caps with the date May 2, 2020 printed on them and 50% off sale signs above – maybe someone will want them as souvenirs, she said.

Stephanie Wolf |

Discounted Derby merchandise at the airport.

Derby Is The Airport’s Prime Season

Derby is the busiest time of the year for the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport.

“This year’s lead up to the first Saturday in May is obviously very different than previous years,” said Natalie Chaudoin, director of public relations for the Louisville Regional Airport Authority. “The  airport is nowhere near the hustle and bustle of excitement and activity, all the red carpet rollout, as we like to call it here.” 

Chaudoin reports that, for Derby 2019, there were 48,600 “scheduled arriving and departing seats” into SDF between the Wednesday prior to Derby and the Monday after. She said Sunday, May 5, 2019 was the airport’s “busiest day ever” in its history with 14,500 scheduled departure seats, as compared to an average day in May that typically has about 7,700 total passengers.

Stephanie Wolf |

An nearly empty baggage claim area at the Louisville airport on a day that would have otherwise been bustling with Derby traffic.

The airport won’t get its passenger data for this week until mid to late May, Chaudoin said. But they have received some national numbers from the federal Transportation Security Administration that illustrate how dramatically travel has slowed down.

“TSA is reporting that screenings nationally are down about 95% compared to the same time last year,” she said. “And we believe we are trending along those same lines. The traffic is considerably down due to the COVID-19 crisis.” 

There’s also been a noticeable difference in the airport’s parking data, Chaudoin said. The weekly data is showing parking usage down about 95%. 

These pandemic-related declines follow SDF’s strongest year ever in 2019, according to Chaudoin. She says the airport authority was optimistic that 2020 would be a big year as well, until the pandemic hit. They can’t yet determine what kind of economic blow that will have because “we’re still living through it.”

“It’s hard to put an exact dollar amount to it,” she said, gesturing to some nearby shuttered restaurants at the airport. “But obviously, when you see traffic down this drastically, we know there are going to be impacts as we work with our airlines, our tenants and other business partners on the operations.” 

In the meantime, the airport has some added precautionary measures.

Stephanie Wolf |

A man installs a bio shield at a car rental counter at the airport on April 30, 2020.

Bio shields have been installed at car rental counters, bank services and in some ticketing areas. Chaudoin said they’ve supplied airport authority staff with face masks and thermometers to monitor temperatures. They’re also considering “virtual ambassadors,” a video chat option, at their information booths, which are presently closed. 

She added that, with airport traffic down, seven of the 147 Louisville Regional Airport Authority staff members have been placed on temporary furlough. 

“Health and safety of everyone is by far the priority,” she said. “But we are looking forward to September when Derby comes and people feel comfortable and healthy and safe and want to resume flying.”

A September Derby

Chaudoin remains optimistic that the postponed date of Sept. 5 will bring back the Derby “hustle and bustle” at the airport, but also acknowledges that so many unknowns come with this crisis. They don’t know for sure that it will be safe to welcome people from all over the world to Louisville in then, and they don’t know “what the comfort levels of people” will be when it comes to air travel.

If the Derby does happen in September, Debbie Weidauer said it won’t be the same.

“It’s not Derby season,” said Weidauer, who was stocking shelves at a store selling magazines, snacks and travel gear. “It’s after the fact and people have moved on to other things.”

Stephanie Wolf |

No lines for security midday at the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport on April 30, 2020.

Cashier Liz Dean just hopes “this epidemic gets over quickly.”

“And we get back to everybody coming to work and we don’t have to wear the masks.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.