Travel restrictions have become more serious and widespread over the past week. The State Department on Thursday raised its global travel advisory to Level 4, instructing American citizens abroad to either return home or stay in place. President Donald Trump shut down most travel from Europe to the United States beginning March 13.
Still, many people need to travel, whether they are coming home from closing colleges, returning from vacation or going on urgent trips. Those travelers are likely to come into contact with high-touch objects such as check-in kiosks, escalator handrails and tray tables, so airports and airlines are making changes aimed at reducing the potential for what’s called community transmission.
They are working in concert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and local public health officials to come up with the best policies and procedures, with changes made as new information comes in.
Here’s what passengers are likely to see and experience.
A lot more cleaning
Janitorial staff at airports are cleaning more frequently and paying special attention to disinfecting high-touch areas like handrails, elevator buttons, door handles, countertops and food court areas. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport said shuttle buses that transport employees, serve rental car facilities, and shuttle passengers to and from planes will be cleaned multiple times a day.
San Francisco International Airport said it has stocked a three-month supply of disinfectant and has begun using battery-operated sprayers. It has also produced 850 posters outlining steps to protect against seasonal cold and flu, including novel coronavirus.
Some nonjanitorial staff are pitching in as well by sanitizing work areas like gate and check-in counters before and after they perform tasks there.
Hand sanitizer everywhere
Passengers are likely to see hand sanitizer on ticket counters, at boarding gates, customer service desks, baggage service offices and lounges.
Seattle-Tacoma airport said it has installed 119 hand sanitizer dispensers in and around the terminal including in garage areas where ride-share passengers wait, at rental car bus stops and on sky bridges.
Airlines are setting up their own hand sanitizer dispensers at check-in counters and gates. Delta Air Lines said it will start increasing those at its hubs first, including Minneapolis-St. Paul International.
Changes to checking in
Using the self-service kiosks means touching screens multiple times, so expect to get reminders from your airline that you can check in over the phone. And rather than handing over your phone and your identification to an agent at baggage drop or at the gate, you may be asked to show it instead.
Check-in kiosks will get multiple wipe-downs a day, but you might consider carrying your own hand sanitizer and wipes for the journey.
No fingerprint scans at the lounge
Airport lounges use fingertip scans to admit members. Both Alaska Airlines and Delta, though, have suspended the use of fingertip entry and are asking passengers to show their boarding pass and identification to attendants in order to gain admission, rather than handing them over.
Change is probably coming to the buffet, as well. Lounges will be cleaned more frequently, the common serving utensils will be changed more frequently, and bartenders will no longer refill your glass. They will give you a new one instead.
Security won’t ease up
The Transportation Security Administration hasn’t made any adjustments to its screening procedures. The most important change a passenger should make here is to place their wallet, keys, phone and other objects from their pockets inside their carry-on bag, rather than directly in the plastic bins that go through the scanner.
TSA operating procedures require personnel to wear nitrile gloves. Travelers who need to be patted down or have their carry-on bag searched can ask the TSA officer to change gloves before they perform that task.
Passengers who use the Clear security stations, which allow them to go to the front of the TSA line, can choose to either place two fingers on a glass fingerprint scanner or look into an iris scanner. In light of the virus, Clear employees are defaulting to the iris option. For passengers who still prefer the fingertip scan, staff will provide hand sanitizer and disinfect the scanner after each use.
Flight attendants in gloves; no more warm towels
The Association of Flight Attendants union has been asking the government and the airlines to implement a list of health and safety changes to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Some of these changes are beginning to be made by airlines.
On some airlines, including United, flight attendants may be wearing gloves in the cabin. They also will no longer refill drinks — you’ll get a new glass to minimize possible points of contact.
Planes will also undergo enhanced cleaning, according to multiple airlines. Delta has begun fogging with disinfectant the interiors of some airplanes that are arriving from international destinations. The fogging, with tray tables lowered and overhead bins and lavatory doors open, is performed after an initial cleaning.
The CDC has offices and quarantine stations at 20 U.S. airports, including MSP. As of March 12, the CDC says that those who have been in Level 3 countries — China, Iran, South Korea and most of Europe — in the previous two weeks but exhibit no symptoms need to stay home for 14 days after returning, monitor their health and practice social distancing.
Travelers coming in from all other countries should monitor their health and limit interactions with others for 14 days after returning. Anyone with symptoms should call ahead before seeking medical care.