It’s the great fear of the unknown and unexpected. That’s what’s keeping travelers away from our nation’s skies in the age of COVID-19. According to recent research conducted by Franklin Templeton and Gallup, 52% of American adults indicate they aren't comfortable flying. That rate only increases with the length of a flight. Furthermore, July data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) indicates that many passengers also have health and safety concerns with airports themselves, with many citing specific concerns around bus and train service at airport terminals, queuing at check-in, security and boarding, and using airport restroom facilities.
But with record low numbers of travelers opting for air travel during the pandemic, we sought to determine what conditions are really like for those that feel comfortable traveling by air. Visiting the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) offered us a first-hand look at what airports and airlines across the country are implementing to make travel safe and comfortable for passengers during the pandemic.
“CVG is working with airports across the country and throughout Canada to share ideas and exchange best practices, with the goal of welcoming passengers back to airport facilities taking extra care to ensure passengers are comfortable and confident,” according to CVG spokesperson Mindy Kershner.
Many airports across the country have similar best practices and goals, and are striving to achieve an industry-approved global Health Accreditation from Airports Council International, which assesses an airport's compliance with new health measures and procedures resulting from the pandemic.
“Some protocols that we’ve taken from an airline and an airport perspective are just encouraging travelers to wear their masks and take responsibility [for] themselves,” says Kershner. “We’ve increased those cleaning intervals just to reassure everyone that the high traffic touchpoints are clean.”
We spoke to airport and airline staff during our visit to CVG to see what passengers can expect during each step of their air travel journey.
The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is a bit quieter during the COVID-19 era, but the airport has implemented a “Fly Healthy” program to make sure passengers and employees remain as safe and healthy as possible.
TICKETING AND BAGGAGE DROP
It's a much quieter scene around the check-in and baggage drop areas these days, especially since many passengers use airline apps for a more contactless experience. But for those who do decide to visit these areas, there will be some noticeable differences meant to keep passengers safe.
According to CVG Terminal Services Manager Hannah Meredith, a lot of emphasis is being placed on putting passenger and employee health first. “On the ticketing and baggage claim levels, passengers will notice plexiglass that’s been installed on all of the counters that is to keep them and the employees safe.”
Kershner quickly agreed that safety near the terminal entrance makes a big first impression. “We have installed friendly reminders throughout the airport for passengers to socially distance themselves from one another. We also have signage at the [security] checkpoints, the gate areas, concessions, and even your boarding areas.”
Walking through ticketing and baggage drop, it's evident that check-in kiosks allow for social distancing, and employees were frequently wiping down surfaces.
Hand sanitizer stations were plentiful, too. According to Meredith, CVG has doubled the number of hand sanitizing stations throughout the airport due to the pandemic. "Passengers, as they're walking through their journey, they'll be able to find them easily located and in accessible areas."
The TSA is taking extra precautions to ensure the safety of travelers at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
With most security screening wait times under five minutes at CVG these days, passengers can get through the security checkpoint much faster than normal. But passengers should be aware of changes to the passenger screening process.
While traditional packing rules for carry-on luggage still apply, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is allowing one liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 ounces in carry-on bags until further notice. Other liquids still need to be less than 3.4 ounces. In most cases, TSA.gov advises that passengers will need to have their hand sanitizer containers over 3.4 ounces screened separately from the rest of their luggage.
Keeping high-touch areas in the security checkpoint clean is key for CVG TSA Supervisor Charles Ernst’s team. “We’re sterilizing bins, bowls, and just the overall tables and everything that is being touched by the passengers,” says Ernst. “[The] TSA is really encouraging passengers to take those small items and place them in their carry-on bags and backpacks. This really just reduces the amount of exposure to those items that they have in contact with the checkpoint.”
New plexiglass barriers protect both TSA staff and passengers as boarding passes are scanned, and IDs are checked. All TSA staff wears masks, and surfaces are frequently seen being wiped down and sanitized.
“Most importantly, the passenger’s health and safety are our biggest priorities,” says Ernst. “In order to do that, we are just minimizing the contact that you have with the TSA. We just want to get you through security safely and securely so you have a great flight.”
An employee at CVG's "The Local" in Concourse A sanatizes the bar - one of many precautions CVG restaurants are taking to preotect passengers and employees.
RESTAURANTS AND CONCESSIONS
While not all restaurant and concession areas are open at CVG, passengers will be pleased to find plenty of options to get a quick sit-down or carry-out meal, or that last snack and magazine before boarding their flight. However, table service isn't available at all airports across the U.S. due to local and state regulations.
“We have a lot of amenities available for passengers,” says Meredith. "All of our restaurants are adhering to their policies, cleaning, and sanitation standards so passengers can be sure they have a safe, clean and tasty experience when they're at any of our restaurants."
Similar to the check-in counters, new plexiglass barriers have been installed at host stands and cash registers. With in-air refreshment options varying by airline due to the pandemic, it's good to know that passengers still have a way to get a drink or snack before boarding.
Both concourses at CVG remain open, despite the pandemic reducing air traffic.
Plexiglass barriers are the norm at the gate agent stand for major carriers at CVG. Social distancing markers were on gate area seats for most carriers, and passengers were being respectful and providing plenty of distance between themselves and their neighbors while waiting to board.
“Our gate areas are being cleaned after each flight,” says Meredith. “When you come to a gate area, you can be assured that it’s a clean and sanitized area for your waiting period.”
From the gate areas, or anywhere in the terminal, passengers may notice Avidbots roaming the floors. These Zamboni-like robots scrub floors throughout the terminal, freeing up housekeeping staff to focus on other high-traffic areas.
Plexiglass has been installed on gate agent stands at airports across the country to protect airline employees and customers. Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines.
As Delta flight 1530 boarded passengers for their journey to Atlanta on a Boeing 737, the familiar habit of passengers crowding the gate area to board never occurred. Instead, passengers remained seated until their row on the plane was called.
While each airline boards their planes differently as a result of the pandemic, most carriers are boarding from the rear of the plane to the front, a noticeable difference in the passenger experience, according to Bill Lentsch, Chief Customer Experience Officer for Delta Air Lines.
“We’ve changed the boarding process since the beginning of this pandemic by no longer boarding by zones, which typically allowed for First Class customers to board first,” says Lentsch, noting that Delta is now boarding from back to front, typically five rows at a time. “What this allows to happen is fewer people sitting on the front side of the airplane, and having those who are yet to board walk right by them have some close proximity to them as they’re making their way to their seat.”
More passengers are scanning their own boarding passes as a result of the pandemic.
THE NEW ONBOARD EXPERIENCE
While the mechanics behind flying haven't changed, the onboard experience may look and feel a little different. Most airlines have instituted a mask mandate, meaning passengers are required to wear a mask for the duration of their flight. Passengers should check with their airline for specific details about the types of masks that are required to protect staff and other passengers.
“On Delta, we require masks throughout the entire travel experience,” says Lentsch. “In fact, our agents do not allow a customer to board an aircraft without appropriately wearing a mask as they board. We’re very, very particular about ensuring mask compliance onboard airplanes.”
In addition, some airlines as of October 26, 2020 are still promoting social distancing by blocking middle seats, most notably Delta, Alaska, Hawaiian, and JetBlue.
According to Delta’s Lentsh, blocking the middle seat, in addition to cabin cleanings between every flight, is part of a multi-pronged approach to keep travel safe. “We are blocking the middle seat onboard our aircraft so that our customers have more space [on the airplane]. So whenever you come in contact with us, in the airport or onboard the airplane, we have laid out some reminders about social distancing.”
Some airlines, including Delta, continue to block middle seats to promote social distancing. Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In talking with travelers, one thing is evident – travel is a very personal decision. And while some passengers have returned to the skies, it's clear that understanding what to expect with airports and airlines is key to making travel safe and comfortable during the pandemic for all passengers.
“Our approach is there isn’t any one single item that will prevent the transmission of the virus, but we have a layered approach [of] air cleaning, surface cleaning, personal protective equipment, and providing social distance – all of these activities,” says Delta’s Lentsch. “When you put them all together, when you stack them up, these layers reduce the level of transmission to very, very close to zero.”
"Airports are encouraging travelers to check out the airport website before you leave home. It's a wealth of information. It's about all of your resources from the CDC, COVID-19, the airline, and then the airport updates and protocols. You can do video tours on the website, and you can do all the reading that you need to research and plan to feel comfortable and confident before leaving home."
Finally, be sure to share your feedback with airlines to help make travel more comfortable and safer for future passengers. According to Delta’s Lentsch, it’s what guides their path forward. “We have medical experts like our partners at Mayo Clinic who give us guidance and help us establish a baseline for clean. But beyond that, what does the customer want? It’s the customer’s feedback that’s really important to us.”
CVG Spokesperson Mindy Kershner agrees feedback is the cornerstone to continuous improvement. “We’ve taken great care in updating our facilities, enhancing protocols, and collaborating with our partners across the industry. We’re listening to travelers through feedback through email or social media, and we’re really taking [feedback] to heart so they can feel comfortable and confident when returning to the airport.”
AAA would like to extend a special thanks to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, the Kenton County Airport Board, the Transportation Security Administration, and Delta Air Lines for their assistance with this story.