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Winnipeggers watch a film at Winnipeg Richardson International Airport as part of the CAA Summer Drive-In Series.

Winnipeg Airports Authority

While some airports across the globe are more active than common sense and science say they should be at this time, many others have seen traffic plunge during the pandemic. The crisis caused activity at Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, for instance, to drop 98 per cent. “We normally see 25,000 passengers on average a day,” said Tyler MacAfee, a spokesperson for the Winnipeg Airports Authority. “At one point, we were down to a hundred people.”

By mid-June, YWG again started to fill up with the kinds of people you normally find at an airport: those planning to reconnect with others or seeking some escapism. Except these folks weren’t flying anywhere. Just going to the movies.

On June 11, the airport’s empty economy parking lot was transformed into a pop-up drive-in movie theatre. Local business AVentPro partnered with CAA Manitoba and the airport authority, which allocated space for about 200 cars. Films are shown on a nine-by-five-metre, high-definition LED screen, tickets and snacks are prepaid, and audio comes through a local FM radio station. The pre-ordered snacks from an on-site food truck are delivered to cars by volunteers, and the stars, not planes, light the sky above – one of the delights of a drive-in movie, as those old enough to remember them will say.

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Crews install the LED screen used to screen films at the pop-up drive-in.

Winnipeg Airports Authority

The flicks aren’t first-runs but rather familiar fare such as Date Night and the kid-friendly Monsters Inc. – as well as Phantom of the Paradise, the 1974 movie that flopped almost everywhere on Earth but became and remains a cult hit in the Peg. (Major theatres are still keeping new releases for their planned reopenings. Manitoba, which has had low COVID-19 infection numbers throughout the pandemic, went into Phase 2 on June 1 with restaurants offering limited seating in addition to patio service. Movie theatres are slated to reopen in the coming weeks.)

Still, opening night was a welcome distraction from quarantine fatigue for the hundreds who showed up. MacAfee said the WAA wasn’t looking to recoup any revenue lost in the pandemic. “We are not approaching this as a revenue opportunity. We looked at it as a way to support an initiative, a great way to get out with your family.” Some profits were slated for charities.

The airport authority allocated room for about 200 cars to attend.

Winnipeg Airports Authority

Across the world, other airports have similarly been getting creative with their empty venues. Ontario Airport in California announced that it, too, is converting unused airport space into a drive-in theatre for four weekend nights. Last month, Lithuania’s Vilnius Airport converted its tarmac into a drive-in, teaming up with the annual Vilnius International Film Festival. In Uruguay, Montevideo’s international airport is showing films nightly.

Other airports have come up with feel-good ventures that also manage to underline the melancholy of the times. In March, a check-in area at Stuttgart airport became a concert venue with one-on-one performances; classical music soloists played to one seated, physically distanced audience member.

In Montreal, from July 3-5, Trudeau International Airport’s employee parking lot will be given over to FAUV, the Festival au Volant (Drive-in Festival), devoted to stand-up comedy. For some Montrealers, this replaces the Just For Laughs/Juste Pour Rire festival, one of the city’s most popular summertime events. (The organizers of FAUV, Sportera, are not affiliated with Just For Laughs.) Local comedians are in the lineup, naturally, as no one is flying in. Snacks from on-site food trucks will be brought to your car. Passes start at $60 for a two-person vehicle. A portion of the profits is earmarked for the local charity Fondation Les Impatients.

All this entertaining repurposing of airport spaces belies the fact that at the onset of the pandemic, when it was spreading across countries like a wildfire, airports became part of the war effort. Some were used as urgent-care facilities. Areas at Istanbul Ataturk Airport were turned into field hospitals. Glasgow’s and Edinburgh’s airports were used as drive-through COVID-19 testing sites. A hangar at Birmingham, England’s about-to-open airport was offered as a morgue for pandemic victims.

As airports start to reopen for their primary purpose, and travellers are faced with a new normal, new design strategies will need to be put in place to curb infections. Travel has played a key role in the spread of the virus, so airports have a special obligation to help curb its spread. The parking lots that are now hosting movies will probably become places to meet and greet loved ones, because it’s unlikely non-passengers will be allowed inside terminals.

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But for now empty airports are thankfully allowing us to enjoy a night out at a show.

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