DeKalb-Peachtree Airport’s business was soaring until it ran into the pandemic storm. Now it’s aiming for a safe landing in a new world of mask-wearing pilots and socially distanced restaurant tables.

Epps Aviation, the full-service aircraft company that anchors PDK, has seen the grounding of much business activity up close.

A publicity photo of an airplane for sale at the Epps Aviation hangar at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.

“It has become a ghost town out here,” said Elaine Epps, the company’s marketing director, in late April as the state reopening order was just taking effect. “I think as we’re weathering through the storm, we’re gradually getting a little busier.”

DeKalb County, which runs the airport on Clairmont Road in Chamblee adjacent to Brookhaven, did not respond to requests for information about the financial impacts. However, numbers for flight operations — takeoffs and landings — in March, available in a monthly airplane-noise complaint report, give a taste. Operations were down nearly 24% over the March 2019 numbers — 11,039 compared to 14,506 — in a month where the pandemic shutdowns began only halfway through.

By April, said Epps, “I think the traffic was down… either 85 or 90%,” a number mirrored in her company’s fuel sales.

PDK arrival and departure lists showed few flights in recent weeks. One of the regulars was a private plane from LabCorp, a North Carolina diagnostic company that is producing COVID-19 test kits. The company did not respond to a comment request.

That’s a change for an airport that has seen about 160,000 operations a year and growing toward a projected 220,000 by 2040. A master plan is accounting for expanded hangars and other amenities.

Support businesses took it on the chin as well. PDK’s two restaurants, the Downwind inside the airport and 57th Fighter Group on its outskirts, were closed by shutdown orders. The 57th Fighter Group — which is owned by Pat Epps of Epps Aviation —  began takeout service and has since resumed some dine-in service, while the Downwind’s Facebook page says it remains closed pending safer conditions.

Some segments of PDK business were able to keep cruising, more or less. While the March operations showed an overall slide, “local operations” — mostly meaning training and rental flights — dipped only slightly.

At Skybound Aviation, which offers training and rental flights at PDK, an employee said that rental business was continuing. “Flying is social distancing,” said an April 13 post on the company’s Facebook page. “…During these unusual times, let’s not make the whining of a few ruin it for all, especially those of us who fly out of PDK.”

However, someone had concern that training flights, where a student pilot and an instructor are in the cockpit, are not socially distanced. Tisa Moore, a city of Chamblee spokesperson, said officials received complaints to that effect about flights by ATP Flight School and had code enforcement staff speak to PDK Director Mario Evans. However, training flights fell under federal definitions of critical operations that could not be shut down by pandemic orders, Moore said, so the flights were allowed to continue with such precautions as mask-wearing. ATP did not respond to a comment request.

At Epps Aviation, which provides a wide range of airplane services, it wasn’t the expected way to mark a 55th birthday that comes this month. But there were some bright spots. Mechanics stayed busy, since this is the time of year maintenance is often performed and the lack of travel made it easier, said Elaine Epps.

But other slides were severe, like the chartered flights dropping from four or five a day to one a week. Among the flights were people leaving for a second home and an international flight crew heading to a destination in semi-isolation rather than using a commercial flight. And those operations come with new precautions, from extra-sanitized planes to pilots in masks. Employees who could telecommute were doing so.

The company was able to maintain its staff of about 154 people, Epps said, though it applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. “The last several years have been good,” she said, and in previous recessions, the company would reduce salaries across the board rather than eliminate jobs.

But the pandemic period remains a stressful one, with the disease’s course still uncharted. Epps said she’s seen it personally as well; her husband was furloughed from his job at another charter company, and early in the pandemic, she was quarantined after attending a conference where another attendee was diagnosed with COVID-19.

The pandemic time, she said, is “not just a financial drain on people. I think it’s a mental drain. I think we’re all just trying to take it a day at a time.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.