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Thinking About Flying Again? What Safety Precautions to Expect at the Airport.

Updated: May 29, 2020

By Elaine Glusac, AARP, May 26 2020

Travelers who venture out will find new TSA rules and procedures.

Before Carol Hicks, 71 , who divides her time between Florida and Illinois, flew on May 3 from Fort Lauderdale to St. Louis with her 11-year-old poodle, Belle, she worried enough about it to call her doctor for advice. But the experience was less anxiety-provoking than she'd expected: Wearing a mask and rubber gloves and toting hand sanitizer, she breezed through security and boarded the Southwest Airlines flight with just 21 other passengers, who spread themselves out throughout the plane for a drama-free trip.

"I have never seen the airport so empty or so clean,” she says.

The airport that you might remember pre-COVID-19 — bustling with traffic, long lines at security, flyers shopping for meals to go or grabbing a drink preflight — became a ghost of itself when travel ground to a halt this spring.

Stay-at-home orders that spread across the country with the virus suddenly emptied airports beginning in mid-March. The decline has been dramatic: Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials screened 230,367 passengers on May 20, for instance, compared with 2,472,123 the same day last year. Some 3,000 planes, representing more than half of active aircraft, are indefinitely parked, according to Airlines for America, the trade group that represents the nation's airlines.

Even though airports are deemed essential, many features have temporarily closed. At O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, where about 31 percent of concessions remain open, you can still get an Intelligentsia coffee but not Garrett Popcorn or a sandwich from Tortas Frontera by Rick Bayless. The yoga studios and airline lounges are closed at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The local bookseller Books & Books at Miami International is closed. Security checkpoint wait times at New York's LaGuardia Airport recently averaged less than 2 minutes.

But with the gradual loosening of stay-at-home restrictions across the country, the prospects for travel are improving. Those considering returning to the air this summer will find airports altered to incorporate physical distancing and hygiene recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here's more of what you're likely find during that first leg of your journey.

Before screening

Airlines have already accustomed flyers to checking themselves in at self-service kiosks and even applying their own bag tag before dropping luggage off for a fairly contact-free exchange in the terminal lobby. Now airlines are stepping up the cleaning of those check-in kiosks. Delta Air Lines says it wipes them down “multiple times a day,” but also encourages its customers to use the Delta smartphone app to get a virtual ticket. If you do need customer assistance, you'll find bottles of hand sanitizer at the service counters.

Many airports, including Portland International Airport and Denver International Airport, require passengers to wear masks in their terminals.

Food and drink

You might want to bring your own snacks. Most airport concessions are temporarily closed or limited to take-away food. Steve Lambert, the spokesman for Ontario International Airport, 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, suggests ordering food through an app called AtYourGate that will deliver meals or snacks pre-departure at Ontario and several other major airports, including those in San Diego, New York, Boston and Minneapolis.

While newsstands continue to sell snacks and water and souvenirs, most of the big-ticket shops are temporarily closed.


They include:

  • requiring TSA officers to wear masks and gloves and encouraging passengers to wear masks

  • emphasizing the need for passengers to follow guidelines for bringing liquids (no more than 3.4 ounces, though you can bring as much as 12 ounces of sanitizer)

  • having passengers scan their electronic or paper boarding passes themselves, rather than hand them to the TSA officer.

The agency has created visual spacing on checkpoint floors to encourage passengers to stay 6 feet apart and, where possible, will stagger the use of lanes to increase physical distancing.

The trade group Airlines for America has asked that during screening passengers be tested for high temperatures, a symptom of COVID-19, but the TSA has yet to decide whether it will do so.

Air Canada has begun touchless infrared temperature checks at check-in, prohibiting anyone with a temperature of 99.6 degrees or higher from flying. Frontier Airlines has said it will do so by June 1, and will prohibit anyone with a temperature of 100.4 or above from boarding.

At the gate

On the gate side, airports are aiming for spick-and-span. Los Angeles International Airport, for example, cleans public areas and restrooms at least once an hour and installed more than 250 hand-sanitizer stations.

"The biggest change is the amount of disinfection,” says Doug Yakel, spokesman for the San Francisco International Airport (SFO). “Traditional cleaning with a mop and soap and water is now replaced with the use of products that are EPA-approved, CDC-recommended germicidal products that kill viruses."

Cleaning technology has changed too, he adds, to no-touch disinfectant sprayers. SFO has installed more than 350 hand-sanitizer stations throughout its terminals.

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