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Airport CEO Navigates Uncharted Territory

Phil Calderone

WHEN Philip Calderone ’81 WAS APPOINTED CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER of Albany International Airport in November 2019, he began working on a forward-looking master plan for the airport—its first in nearly 30 years. But the process was interrupted by the emergence of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Calderone has family in Milan, Italy, which was hit early and hard by COVID-19; he heard firsthand how the city shut down operations and commerce, and isolated itself from the rest of the country. Anticipating a similar situation in the U.S., he convened in February a task force that included, among others, local and federal officials in the government, health, safety, and transportation sectors.

They reviewed the airport’s pandemic response plan and emergency response plan to develop a strategic plan that included a contingency for operating the control tower from a remote location. Community outreach was critical, especially letting people know about the precautions that were being taken to protect travelers’ safety. Still, when the virus escalated in March, air travel declined by nearly 95% and revenues plummeted dramatically.

But essential airport services had to continue. In addition to air travel, the airport handles millions of tons of essential cargo. “We are very much a part of the critical infrastructure of the region,” Calderone said. They had to be able to receive planes carrying equipment for hospitals and other integral institutions, and COVID-19 patients being transported to receive treatment at Albany Medical Center.

To avoid layoffs or furloughs, some employees were temporarily repurposed for other needs, such as additional cleaning and sanitizing of the terminal. Work also continued on large-scale renovation projects essential to the airport’s mission.

“The airport is in many ways a microcosm of society,” Calderone said. “We are subject to federal rules and restrictions; we must comply with state and local guidelines; and we need to balance the importance of risk mitigation and protecting the public with the requirement of remaining operational.”

When Albany’s signatory airlines, financially devastated by the sharp decline in air travel, requested abatements or deferrals of rent, Calderone granted temporary relief as permitted by the FAA. “We made sure we worked with the airlines as good partners; their success is key to our success.”

As New York State began its phased reopening in late May, airport traffic began to increase to about 40%.

In June, however, when New York imposed quarantine restrictions on over 30 states, air travel dropped again to 25%. Despite the decline, Calderone believes the quarantine restrictions have been necessary to protect New York’s success in reducing the infection rate and preventing any flare-up.

Calderone noted as a challenge the lack of clear national guidelines for passenger travel. “Airlines and airports need to work together on consistent standards that will reassure passengers that it is safe to travel.” While Albany International was one of the first airports to make mask-wearing mandatory, enforcement of the rule has raised important legal issues. And some airports are considering mandatory screening before people enter the terminal. “But if a risk is determined, what can [airport personnel] do at that point, given constitutional concerns?” Calderone asked.

Strategies for handling situations like a pandemic lie in becoming even more “smart” from a technology perspective, Calderone said.

Albany International has partnered with GE Research and Aviation divisions to explore new tech- nologies to help airports deal with these challenges. But biometric technologies such as facial recognition, remote temperature screening, and passenger tracking—for contact tracing—also raise legal issues.

“We need to give thoughtful consideration to data privacy issues and balance legal concerns with the challenges of the pandemic,” he said. “We need to assure passengers that these technologies are not intrusive in any way, do not violate their constitutional rights, and will protect their health and safety.”

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