PHOENIX (AP) — Air traffic controllers fired. The economic recession after the first Gulf War. The burst of the dot com bubble. MERS, SARS and, of course, the hijacking of aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001. After 40 years in the industry, the top official overseeing Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has endured almost every crisis to impact aviation.
But as James Bennet t prepares to retire at the end of October after five years leading Phoenix’s aviation services, he knows which one stands out as the worst.
“This period we’re in right now is probably a sum of all those previous events kind of rolled into one,” Bennett told the Arizona Republic in an interview.
The new coronavirus pandemic hit Sky Harbo fast and hard.
The first hit came from travel advisories and restrictions that caused Phoenix’s air passenger traffic, which was on pace for another record-breaking year, to plummet 93% virtually overnight in March.
Later that month, Bennett’s department suffered a second, more personal, blow. Deputy Aviation Director Trevor Bui became Arizona’s first known COVID-19 death. And the virus was an obstacle to grieving Bui’s loss.
“As this virus has been coming at us very rapidly, we’ve not had the opportunity to really celebrate that team member’s contribution to us and to the city,” said Bennett. “We’ve also not had the opportunity to grieve for the loss of a friend. So that is very sad.”
When asked to reflect on the initial days of the pandemic, Bennett settled on the word “uncertainty.”
With a federal government response that lacked any clear direction on how to respond, it was difficult for airlines and airports to figure out what was happening.
“So that made it very challenging. You’re almost operating in a vacuum,” said Bennett.
And to an extent, Bennett says, that vacuum continues today.
To compare, just two months after the 9/11 terrorist hijackings, President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which established the Transportation Security Administration and instituted safety protocols such as passenger and baggage screenings, the reinforcing of cockpit doors and the expansion of federal air marshal service.
Those steps were meant not only to keep the traveling public safe but also to instill confidence to fly.
But as the pandemic rolls into its sixth month in the United States, there hasn’t been a similar standardization of safety protocols to reassure customers.
“That just creates an enormous level of uncertainty,” said Bennett.
Face-covering requirements, temperature checks, blocking off seats — each airline and airport is navigating the crisis on its own, he said. He points to the same being true for states, municipalities and countries on quarantine requirements and travel restrictions.
“Anybody involved in the business has been asking for some standard protocols that can be applied globally in response to the pandemic and they don’t exist,” Bennett said.
Bennett has flown since the pandemic began and believes it is safe to be on an airplane, but he admits that absent a treatment or vaccine, it may be a struggle to get people to fly.
Sky Harbor has rebounded a bit, but newly released figures for July show passenger traffic down 64.7%. That news, Bennett said, is actually better than what many airports across the country are experiencing.
And though the drop in passengers has battered airport finances, Sky Harbor is financially healthy, Bennett said, thanks to $148 million in CARES Act funding and $30 million in budget reductions the airport has identified, including instituting a 20% freeze on spending and halting some optional capital improvements.
When Bennett departs the nation’s 13th largest airport in October, the city will be searching for new leadership as Sky Harbor continues to suffer its largest sustained drop in traffic in history.
When asked why he’s leaving now, Bennett said it is time to let someone new take the reins. He said he came out of retirement to take the job with some specific goals, such as getting the Federal Aviation Administration to resolve its controversial flight paths as well as map out a comprehensive 20-year plan for the future of the airport.
Now, he said, it is time to reintroduce himself to friends and family he hasn’t seen in a while due to the demands of the job.
Will retirement stick this time?
“I don’t know. I keep failing it. I may fail it again,” Bennett said.