The Washington Post
More people are flying again.
Here’s what to expect at airports
and on planes.
By Natalie B. Compton -
The number of people flying is steadily increasing since the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
reported its record-low checkpoint traffic numbers.
On April 14, TSA announced just 87,534 travelers passed through its security checkpoints nationwide. On
Monday, that number was back up to 215,645.
Despite the increase of people flying, the coronavirus pandemic is far from over. More than 4 million cases
have been reported worldwide and more than 275,000 people have died. The nation’s top health experts are
still encouraging Americans to stay at home to stop the spread of covid-19.
As more people return to the airport, they’ll notice that it’s not business as usual. There’s new infrastructure
in place, and new protocols being followed to protect travelers and air travel employees from the novel
coronavirus. In addition to deep-cleaning procedures, here are some of the top changes to expect.
You’ll wear a mask at the airport and on the plane.
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending everyone wear a face cover when out in
public, be prepared to wear one in an airport and on your flight, too. A face mask may be required by the
airline, the airport or the local government.
“American, like other U.S. airlines, requires customers to wear a face covering while on board, and this
requirement is enforced at the gate while boarding,” an American Airlines spokesperson told The
Washington Post in a statement. “Some passengers are exempt, such as young children and those with a
medical reason why they cannot wear a mask. The policy also does not apply while eating or drinking.”
In some cases, if a passenger arrives to a flight without a face mask, one may be provided by the airline. You’ll interact with airport staff through glass.
Like in grocery stores, airlines and airports are installing “sneeze guards” in places such as check-in
counters, security checkpoints, gate lecterns and restaurants to protect against the coronavirus.
“We put up sneeze guards throughout the terminal between customers and employees [and] at the gate
when you scan your boarding pass,” Mike Hanna, vice president of operations for United Airlines at O’Hare
International Airport, told NPR.
Some airlines, such as United, are shutting down their self check-in kiosk services to reduce the number of
touch points at the airport, in addition to offering touch-free kiosk services to check bags. If you don’t want
to interact with a gate agent to check in for a flight, make sure you check in and have your boarding pass for
your flight on your phone.
You’ll encounter new TSA procedures.
TSA has been making adjustments throughout the pandemic to address health and safety concerns of fliers.
One of the most obvious adjustments is that travelers can expect to practice social distancing while waiting
in line at airport security checkpoints.
On May 7, TSA announced its staff members must wear face masks at screening checkpoints. Travelers are
allowed to wear face masks throughout the screening process, however a TSA agent may ask the traveler to
pull it down to confirm their identity.
TSA is allowing passengers to carry on one container of liquid hand sanitizer, up to 12 ounces, until further
Passengers can also ask TSA officers to change gloves during their screening process. The agency
recommends travelers be particularly vigilant about following rules for carry-on bags if they don’t want
officers to have to touch their belongings more than necessary.
“We are advising travelers to place personal items such as wallets, keys or phone in their carry-on bags to be
screened through the X-ray system,” TSA said in a statement. “Anything that you’d hold up to your face
that’s in your pockets — put those items in your carry-on bag, not in the bin.”
You’ll have your temperature checked.
As one of covid-19′s symptoms is fever, screening travelers’ temperatures with contactless infrared
thermometers is becoming more common at airports around the world.
Air Canada, Air France, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Cathay Pacific and others have announced
temperature checks for passengers.
London’s Heathrow Airport is carrying out the screenings at some departures, the BBC reported. Hong
Kong has been temperature-screening arriving and departing passengers since April.
As of now, the only U.S. airline planning to check the temperature of passengers is Frontier. Earlier this
month, the carrier announced that starting June 1, anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher
would not be permitted to fly.
Other airlines, including JetBlue and Southwest, are pushing for TSA to take passengers’ temperatures at
the security check point. The International Air Transport Association is also a proponent of the practice for
both travelers and staff.
You’ll board with fewer people.
The choreography of boarding and deplaning may be different from what you are used to. Major airlines
have announced changes in boarding procedures to encourage social distancing between passengers.
I’ve landed in Hong Kong after flying from Paris CDG, via
London Heathrow. I now have to wait ~8 hours before I get my
#COVID19 test results and thus have ample time to tweet about
To avoid the usual crowds gathering in front of the boarding gate, Delta is boarding customers 10 at a time.
JetBlue is boarding passengers in the back of the plane first instead of its normal boarding procedure.
“This will help reduce the number of customers passing each other to get to their seats,” the company’s
website said. “In addition, customers will be asked to remain seated upon arrival until the row in front of
them has completely cleared before deplaning.”
Southwest flight attendants will act as ushers to coordinate passengers disembarking.
You’ll fly with fewer people — sometimes.
While many people are still seeing far fewer passengers on board flights than before the pandemic began,
the days of travelers flying on near-empty planes may be coming to an end. Last week, a photo went viral of
a packed United flight. Now United says it will alert travelers if they’re going to be on a full flight, giving
them the option to cancel or reschedule their trip.
“Because our schedule is so reduced (we’re only operating a single flight a day in some destinations), there
are a small number of flights where our customers are finding planes fuller than they expect,” the airline’s
website said. “We’ll do our best to contact [passengers booked on full flights] about 24 hours before their
departure time so they can decide whether to adjust their plans before they arrive at the airport — and we’ll
provide this option at the gate, if more than 70% of customers have checked in.”
Other airlines are capping seating to prevent crowding. Delta has pledged to cap seating at 50 percent in
first class and 60 percent in Delta Premium Select, Delta Comfort+ and Main Cabin, and eliminated the
middle seat as an option for seat assignment.
American Airlines introduced a “relaxed seating” policy that blocks 50 percent of the middle seats on each
plane, as well as those near attendants’ “jump” seats.
Southwest starting reducing the number of available seats by a third on May 2.
“As a note, Southwest chose to reduce available seats rather than block middle seats so that families, and
those traveling together, may still sit together while allowing others to space out among empty seats at
comfortable distances,” the airline said in a statement.
ONE person on my flight to Charlotte refused to wear a mask
and when I got here, there are a TON of people without them -
the only reason mine is down rn is so I can eat and drink
something. You’ll experience limited or eliminated food and beverage
Many airlines are making changes to their in-flight food and drink services.
“We’re paring down to essential onboard food and beverage options in an effort to reduce physical touch
points between customers and employees,” Delta announced on its website. “Since many airport offerings
are limited at this time, we recommend packing your own food items and encourage you to review TSA
guidelines before bringing food through security checkpoints.”
Delta, among other airlines, is temporarily cutting ice, alcohol, snacks for purchase and special meal
services. Some airlines, such as Southwest, have eliminated food and drink services altogether. Pack food
and a water bottle for your flight.
You may want to pack food for the airport, too.
“While some airport concessions have closed or have reduced hours due to the decline in passenger traffic,
there are still many options for passengers to pick up food or make purchase retail items,” Becca Doten,
managing director of media relations at Los Angeles International Airport, told The Washington Post in an
email. “Restaurants are not offering table service, but will sell items that can be eaten while maintaining
distance from others.”
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Natalie B. Compton
Natalie Compton is a staff writer for the Washington Post
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