As the end of July approaches, longtime flight attendant Shannon Thein is filled with dread.
When air traffic was decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Thein and other employees at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport could park at Terminal 1 where there was plenty of room following the outbreak.
Now, as Americans make up for lost time and pack planes during the summer of "revenge travel," the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) plans to move employee parking back to Terminal 2 by Aug. 1 to make room for air travelers at the main terminal.
For Thein, a flight attendant for 31 years, that's an ominous development. Parking at the smaller terminal means that she and other employees must take a short ride to Terminal 1 on the light-rail Blue Line, confronting unsettling situations often late at night and in the wee hours of the morning.
The last time Thein took the Blue Line between terminals, she said, she had to step over people sleeping in a vestibule. When the train arrived, it reeked of urine and marijuana, and several passengers appeared to be homeless, she said. A man on the train watched her closely.
"I am basically trapped in there," said Thein, of Minnetonka. "I have nothing to protect me. I'm an easy mark."
Others feel the same way about light-rail safety at the airport.
Sun Country Airlines began sending out advisories about two years ago after crew members were "verbally harassed" on light-rail trains connecting MSP's terminals, said company spokeswoman Wendy Burt.
The advisories instruct pilots and flight attendants to wait for trains in well-lighted areas, to sit near the operator once on board and to conceal their uniforms if possible. The airline also tells employees how to report a crime while on the train.
Sun Country provides a Lyft ride to crew members who feel unsafe taking light rail at MSP. While the airline operates out of Terminal 2, some employees need to get to the main terminal to fly to other airports for work.
"I shouldn't have to go through this to get to work," said Paul Hansen, a pilot for another airline who lives in Maple Grove.
Hansen, who's been a pilot for 32 years, said he's seen people using drugs, defecating and screaming on the train before as well as during the pandemic. He said his uniform makes him an easy target for verbal harassment, and he keeps a "big stick" in his car in case he's followed.
The concerns expressed by airline personnel at MSP sum up the challenges facing Metro Transit as it combats crime and the perception of crime aboard the local public transportation system, especially the Green and Blue light-rail lines.
The transit agency has adopted a Safety & Security Action Plan encompassing nearly 40 steps intended to improve safety and make public transportation more welcoming, particularly as more people return to the office. Metro Transit has already increased real-time camera monitoring on trains and at stations, stepped up cleaning of vehicles, and shortened trains to enhance a police presence.
The agency is trying to hire more police and community service officers but has found it difficult given the challenging employment market.
"Improving public safety is a top priority for Metro Transit, and increasing the official presence on the system is key to accomplishing that," said spokeswoman Laura Baenen.
Metro Transit encourages passengers witnessing "suspicious activity" to use its "Text for Safety" service, and it notes that trains and stations are equipped with emergency call buttons. And officials from Metro Transit and the MAC say their police departments are working together to keep the light-rail link between terminals safe.
But some remain dubious about those efforts.
"By the time I finish the text [for help], I could be bleeding to death," Hansen said. "There just aren't enough police on the trains."
A new normal
Concerns about light-rail safety are arising as the airport attempts to transition to a new normal for air travel following the worst of the pandemic.
The relocation of employee parking back to Terminal 2 is related to increased demand for parking in the main terminal, said MAC spokesman Jeff Lea.
"There have been multiple times since this spring that general parking has filled to the point of diverting traffic to other parking lots," Lea said. It's important to make it easy for travelers to park, he added, "so they remain the top priority for the limited spaces in those ramps."
If more space isn't freed up at Terminal 1, then passengers may be diverted to Terminal 2 "adding more time to their terminal arrival and increasing the risk that [they] could miss their flight," Lea said.
The airport's parking ramps are a big source of revenue. Before the pandemic, they generated $108 million for the MAC. That figure plunged to $42 million in 2020, the year COVID took hold. This year, the MAC has budgeted for nearly $87 million in parking revenue.
Employees can park in the ramps at Terminal 1, but the daily rate is $28 — costing Thein nearly $90 just in parking for a three-day work trip, she said. In the future, she'll likely get a ride to the airport, but she noted that many of her colleagues don't have that option.
Parking at Terminal 2 is cheaper for employees: $44 a month for those working at the airport, and $59 a month for airline crew members based outside of MSP, according to the MAC.
Still, flight attendant Dory Guzik of Lindstrom says she's hopeful the MAC will come up with a better solution for employees who are fearful of taking light-rail between terminals.
For example, Delta Air Lines employees park at a leased surface lot on 34th Avenue. Delta, MSP's dominant carrier, operates a shuttle bus for employees from the lot to Terminal 1 at the company's expense, according to Lea.
"I've been through 9/11 and the pandemic, and now I'm forced to be put back on light-rail that everyone knows is unsafe," said Guzik, who has been a flight attendant for 33 years. "I've never had such fear and anxiety about coming to work."
Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this story.