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A sign welcomes visitors to the "Live Music Capital of the World" at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Thursday. (Kristin Finan)

A tender brisket plate at The Salt Lick. A perfectly crafted latte at Jo's Coffee. A sudsy pint at the Saxon Pub.

Certain things are just part of the quintessential Austin experience—even if you're just passing through the airport.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in recent years has become well known as a microcosm of what people love about Austin, from the live music that streams through the terminal to the local art that adorns the walls to the outposts of popular Austin shops and restaurants, including those named above.

A year after the pandemic brought the world to a halt—and in turn resulted in the lowest passenger numbers the airport had seen since it opened in 1999—and on the eve of spring break, the terminal on Thursday showed signs that the mini-Austin experience so many once treasured is beginning to reemerge.

Visitors to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Thursday pass The Salt Lick outpost, which offers everything from barbecue plates to a whole brisket to-go. (Kristin Finan)

At Tyler's, clips from former "Austin City Limits" tapings streamed on a TV inside the locally-focused apparel shop, while a socially distanced line queued for breakfast tacos at Tacodeli. In front of the Asleep at the Wheel stage—the largest of the airport's seven stages—plastic shields sat ready to safely welcome, and protect, performers.

"Such a large portion of what we offer is local and is brands that'll be familiar to you as a local to Austin," said Mandy McClendon, spokeswoman for ABIA. "While you may not have all the options, you certainly still will have many of them. For the most part, it does feel like the airport you know and love."

Masks are still required to be worn at the airport. (ABIA)

For those who haven't traveled during the pandemic, the first thing to know is that masks remain required throughout the airport and on flights. Despite Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to end Texas' statewide mask mandate on Wednesday, ABIA is included in an executive order issued by President Joe Biden and implemented by the Transportation Security Administration that requires face masks in airports.

"If you're in an airport you must be wearing a mask. We want to make sure we're communicating that to our passengers because we understand the conflicting advice can be a little bit confusing," McClendon said. "We don't want anyone to end up in a situation where they come to the airport without a mask and then they can't board their flight."

McClendon said that passenger traffic in April 2020 was down 96% from April 2019 and that overall passenger traffic in 2020 was down 63% from 2019, which was the airport's highest-ever passenger travel year. As a result, the airport gave its retail and restaurant vendors the flexibility to "open and close and provide staffing as they're able to and as makes sense for them while also ensuring we have a variety of options open throughout the terminal."

Live music has also continued in the form of small shows featuring only one or two musicians, aside from when the city was in Stage 5, when performances were suspended.

"Music is something that's very important to our terminal," McClendon said. "We have and continue to try to come up with creative ways to still make that a part of the experience."

Zack Morgan playing the piano during his set at the airport in 2020. (ABIA)

As passenger travel continues to increase and more people are vaccinated, McClendon said, expect even more of the things that people love about the airport to return—safely.

"We are an essential operation to Austin," McClendon said. "The more people that we have come through our doors, the more vigilant we want to be about things like social distancing and mask wearing and just making everyone feel comfortable in the terminal."


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