Ken Hoffman and the curious case of the empty Houston airport
For the past month, we’ve heard reports of the U.S. airline industry going, going, gone. Fewer planes taking off, fewer planes landing, fewer passengers aboard. There are stories of planes leaving Hobby Airport with 10 passengers.
Is it true that a plane took off for Chicago with only two people on it? Everybody's in Boarding Group A! Some planes are grounded, they're not going anywhere. Across the country, air travel is down 97 percent from a year ago because of the coronavirus outbreak.
So, earlier this week, I decided to have a look. And since I was there anyway, how about a sandwich at Pappas Bar-B-Q on the main concourse?
Parking for one
I usually leave my car at one of those satellite parking lots close to the airport and hop a shuttle. On-site parking at the airport is too crazy expensive. Not now. Instead of hourly rates, parking in the airport garage is $5 flat for a whole day.
It won't be hard to find my car when I leave. I was the only vehicle on Level 4. It looked like I was visiting the Parking Garage That Time Forgot.
There are two terminals at Hobby Airport. Only Terminal 1 is open for business. It's open, sure, but I didn't see much business. There are two main check-in areas in Terminal 1. One area was closed, no agents, no customers.
The curious case of the empty airport
The other area had agents, some wearing masks, some not. But no customers. The concourse looked like a spooky, abandoned building. Over by the entrance doors I saw a group of porters waiting with their wheelchairs for passengers needing assistance. These men work on tips. These are not good times. I walked past the TSA entrance. Several agents, no bodies to scan. Three lines, no waiting.
Some industry analysts say it will be years before air travel returns to pre-COVID levels. I've been pricing flights to Europe for September-October, and some airlines are not selling middle seats, so you don't have to pay extra for seat selection. You're not going to get trapped between Mr. Stinky and Miss Elbows.
So far, I'm not seeing any bargain fares from Houston, though. Go ahead, fly empty planes. I'll stay home and watch the start of baseball season.
Lunch at the (empty) airport
I went to Pappas BBQ, the big restaurant on the main concourse. The restaurant is open from 5 am to 10 pm. The woman behind the counter said they were only offering a limited menu, just a few sandwiches and a couple of side dishes.
I really like their pulled pork sandwiches and their French fries are very underrated, actually among the best in Houston. The woman threw a handful of fries in the deep fryer for me. I asked her, so how’s business these days? She said, before the virus, several hundred customers a day. Now, down to a few souls. Pappas Bar-B-Que at the airport has Coke Zero in bottles. That's class.
I had a friend once, a rascal. He told me, if you’re taking someone to dinner, and you don’t want anybody you know to see you, go to an airport restaurant. Only people from out of town will be there. Now you don’t have to worry about anybody seeing you.
Pappas Bar-B-Q was empty, but the ban on dining rooms was still in effect, so I ordered my sandwich and fries to go and went back to the concourse to find a place to eat. I sat in one of those credit card massage chairs and had a little picnic.
Usually I don't have the nerve to sit in those chairs, like a cheapskate squatter. This time, I got good and comfortable in the plush leather and enjoyed an intimate lunch. I had nowhere to go. The airport is the perfect place to go when you have nowhere to go.