Cruise ships may not be bringing South Florida the tourists that are the lifeblood of the area's economy, but each day, airlines are flying more and more passengers here for fun in the sun.
South Florida's airports, once ghost towns, are showing signs of a comeback one year into the pandemic.
Wilkinson Sejour, the man known as ‘Chef Creole,’ was preparing island dishes when NBC 6 visited his restaurant in the heart of Miami International Airport (MIA).
This was a prime location until March 2020, when air travel virtually halted because of COVID.
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“The first word would be shock and the second word would be catastrophic,“ Sejour told us.
Sejour said he relied on his other restaurants to help keep the MIA eatery going, and he said the county forgave his rent.
“One of the biggest helps that we did get was from the County Commissioners and the Aviation Department where... they tried to mitigate the impact that we had over here,” Sejour said.
“The airport is the number one economic engine of this community,” said Miami International Airport Director Lester Sola.
Sola told NBC 6 his plan was to help local vendors survive so passengers could find a meal and shop when they did come back.
“We continue to provide economic relief to our concessionaires and in fact, we are working on a long-term program that really makes it easier for them to succeed,” Sola said.
Dan Ronan is MIA’s TSA Security Director. “Here at Miami, our low hit just over 1,400 passengers screened by TSA,” Ronan said.
To limit contact between TSA officers and passengers, the TSA put up plexiglas, installed systems to read drivers’ licenses to limit contact with passengers, and put in a high-tech machine that limits the number of times a TSA officer needs to actually go inside and open your bag.
“It’s called a computed tomography X-ray machine. With those machines, it presents a 3D image of your carry on property to the officer. With that 3D image, he can strip away different layers of the bag to see exactly what’s in it,” Ronan said.
“All of those things have really reduced the times passengers and TSA officers have to have contact there by reducing transmission.”
By the day, flyers are returning. Many of them are college students now heading to the beaches.
At the airport in Fort Lauderdale, the number of passengers is up 15 times what it was last April. At MIA, 80,000 flyers came through on a recent weekend.
Juan Carlos Liscano heads the American Airline operation at MIA.
“Right now, we are flying 245 flights a day. Just in a few more weeks, we are going to be at 270 flights a day,” Liscano told NBC 6.
He said the detailed cleaning of planes with special chemicals and passengers wearing mask remains the future.
With many now being vaccinated, American Airlines developed an app for your smart phone to "store medical records that can presented at the ticket counter.”
“We have worked with...creating a medical digital wallet that has allowed us to work through all the different international requirements as it relates to COVID," Liscano added.
"We think as vaccines ramp up...we’re going to see changes in what those requirements are. It will make it easier for customers to do that."
Director Sola said people are getting used to standing on markings six feet apart and frequently using hand sanitizer from the dispensers. He said more will be willing to return to the sky in 2021.
“We see that people are getting more and more comfortable not just in the safety protocols measures that we have but people are also getting vaccinated and they feel more comfortable traveling,” Sola said.