On Friday, the Transportation Security Administration screened 348,673 people at American airports, the most since travel went into a free-fall in mid-March, likely driven by people traveling ahead of Memorial Day weekend. Still, a year ago, more than 2.7 million people were screened, showing just how far the industry has to come back.
For people who are thinking of flying this summer, or in the months after, air travel will be a far different experience than it was before the coronavirus. The days of casually hopping in a cab or Uber to the airport, then jostling for space in the overhead, are over, at least for the moment. From the curb to the plane, each portion of the journey has new rules and new things to think about.
Here’s what we know about navigating air travel safely now.
What’s the best way to get to the airport?
If someone you have been isolating with can drop you in their own car, that raises the least possible risk. If you need to take a car service like Uber or Lyft, you should remember that those companies are not allowing ride shares (so you can expect to pay more for your ride) and it’s courteous to drivers and passengers who come after you to wipe down the seat and door handle before exiting the car. Uber and Lyft are requiring that all passengers and drivers wear masks. The companies said they are also providing cleaning supplies to as many drivers as possible.
Many airports around the country have changed their drop-off, pickup and parking procedures to encourage people to keep moving. Make sure you know what your airport’s current policies on drop-off and parking are. Most airports have created pages with Covid-19 updates. Many airports have closed their long-term parking lots, but are keeping daily and hourly garages open.
Most airports have adjusted their rules to allow only ticketed passengers and people helping them check in to enter terminals, so take that into account when planning who will accompany you.
Before going to the airport, how should I prepare?
Flying has always been a high-touch exercise so think about all those points and how you can minimize them. Wrapping yourself head to toe in plastic wrap is not really necessary, but you should carry — and use — a mask, wipes and hand sanitizer. Some experts suggest wearing gloves, though the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance suggests they are not necessary.
Most airlines suggest that travelers download their app for touchless boarding, which will minimize the number of times you have to hand over documents or touch screens. Think about whether you want to check a bag or if you can make the trip with a carry-on (experts don’t necessarily think one is better than the other). Some airlines have shut down self-service kiosks and others, like United, have begun rolling out touchless kiosks that allow customers to print bag tags using their own devices to scan a QR code.
What should I expect at the airport?
Lots of cleaning. Airports have been cleaning everything from the floors and surfaces to the air more rigorously. Long Island MacArthur Airport, for example, is using something called Continuous Air and Surface Pathogen Reduction, a system that continuously sanitizes air and surfaces. CASPR attacks pathogens by converting oxygen and moisture into hydrogen peroxide and releasing that into the air. Pittsburgh International recently became the first American airport to use robots with UV-C rays to clean and disinfect the floors in high-traffic areas.
Other airports have increased hand sanitizer stations throughout the airport as well as the regularity with which they are cleaning; in some cases it’s hourly. Many are also requiring all passengers to wear masks.
JetBlue said last week that it has increased the frequency with which it is cleaning surfaces in its airport terminals with a hospital-grade disinfectant. United also said last week that it is working with Cleveland Clinic experts and Clorox to ensure it is using the best cleaning practices.
Many airport shops may be closed, and not all airlines are serving food on flights, so you may want to bring your own food for the plane. Most airports are discouraging the use of cash. You may want to make sure you have a tap-to-pay card or have set up contactless payments like Apple Pay on your phone.
How can I be safe during check in and security?
That’s where your at-home prep comes in. Do as much of the process on your airline’s app as you can. Bring hand sanitizer in case you need to hand over documents or your phone, or if you need to key anything in at a kiosk. Pay attention to the floor markers indicating the proper social distancing. Even though crowds have been thin, maintaining social distancing may be difficult, so wear your mask. Expect T.S.A. agents to be wearing them as well.
T.S.A. has tweaked its security procedures to reduce how much travelers have to handle security bins and to keep agents from touching travelers’ belongings. At the podium, you no longer have to hand your boarding pass to a T.S.A. agent. Instead, you will place your electronic or paper boarding pass on the boarding pass reader yourself. After scanning, you should hold your boarding pass up for an agent to inspect it.
If you have food, don’t put it into your carry on. Put it into a clear plastic bag and then put that bag into a bin. “Separating the food from the carry-on bag lessens the likelihood that a T.S.A. officer will need to open the carry-on bag and remove the food items for a closer inspection,” a T.S.A. announcement on Thursday said. T.S.A. Precheck members do not need to remove items from their bags.
To reduce the number of things that go into the reusable plastic bins, put items, including belts, wallets, keys and phones, into your carry-on bags, rather than into a bin.
If you need to be patted down, T.S.A. officers will change gloves after each pat down.
How can I make it through the boarding scrum?
Ask your airline what its current procedure for boarding is. Southwest, for example, has been having people board in groups of 10, with people only lining up on one side of its boarding poles. United is boarding people by row, with people sitting in the back of the plane boarding after preboarding groups. JetBlue is also implementing back-to-front boarding. Most airlines are boarding fewer people at a time to keep crowds from forming at the gate, on the jet bridge and as people get on the plane. Airlines are also asking people to scan their own boarding passes.
Policies differ by airline, but most airlines are asking passengers to wear masks to board and on flights.
Do I need to wipe down my seat?
Doing a full Naomi Campbell is not necessarily a bad idea, but airlines say they have stepped up the deep cleaning of planes, sometimes between every flight. Delta is using an “electrostatic sprayer,” which releases a mist of disinfectant. American Airlines planes are tidied throughout the day and cleaned for more than six hours every night. Alaska Airlines increased its cleaning procedures between flights. Most airlines have created a Covid-19 page with information about what they are doing to keep passengers safe. This page, in many cases, has detailed information about what kind of cleaning protocols an airline is following.
Do I need to keep my mask on?
Yes, most airlines are asking people to keep them on for the duration of their flight. You should know that the air on the plane is pretty clean: Commercial planes recycle cabin air using High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, so the air might not be fresh, but it is scrubbed. HEPA filters catch 99 percent of airborne microbes, according to the International Air Transportation Association, an industry group.
Masks can be taken off to eat and drink (on airlines that are serving meals). You can bring your own food onto the plane, though Southwest is asking people to eat before traveling. United recently introduced an “all in one” economy snack bag that includes a sanitizer wipe, an 8.5 oz. bottled water, a Stroopwafel and a package of pretzels. It is being passed out during the flight.
Will someone be in the seat next to me?
They might be. Pictures of flights in which every seat seems full have been making the rounds on social media. They are not the norm. On average, flights are carrying about 39 passengers, down from the first two months of the year, when flights were carrying about 85 to 100 passengers.
Airlines for America, an industry lobbying group, says that most flights — about 73 percent — are less than 50 percent full.
“Airlines are attempting to leave some seats open for distancing between travelers when feasible, but not all circumstances allow for that,” the organization said in a statement this week.
If you are concerned about sitting next to someone and have a choice of airlines, consider their different policies. JetBlue said this week that it will continue to block middle seats on Airbus planes in rows where people aren’t traveling together through July 4, and will block aisle seats on smaller Embraer 190 planes.
Most airlines state on the reservation page what kind of aircraft they will be flying, but if that information is not there, you can enter the information that you do have about a flight, like its departure city, destination and date of travel on a site like ITA Matrix or SeatGuru to find out about the aircraft.
United said this week that it will be limiting advance seat selections “where possible” and allowing customers to take alternative flights when a flight is expected to be more than 70 percent full. The airline will reach out to customers via email 24 hours before their flight to provide rebooking options.
When choosing your seat, if you think you won’t need to get up for the duration of the flight, a window seat is a good idea because people sitting in window seats have less contact with potentially sick people.