After passengers nearly vanished from the skies in April, a growing number of fliers are now heading back into the air.
On June 15, some 534,500 travelers passed through TSA checkpoints, compared to little more than 87,500 travelers on April 14, the lowest number since the coronavirus pandemic began. While these numbers are still a fraction of their 2019 counterparts (on June 15, 2019, 2.7 million travelers passed through TSA checkpoints), they’ve been steadily rising.
American Airlines announced earlier this month that, in response to improved demand, it plans to fly 55 percent of its July 2019 domestic capacity in July 2020. By the last week of May, American carried an average of about 110,000 customers per day, compared to the approximately 32,000 average daily customers the airline flew in April.
“We’re seeing a slow but steady rise in domestic demand,” stated Vasu Raja, American’s senior vice president of network strategy. “Our July schedule includes the smallest year-over-year capacity reduction since March.”
With more people heading into the air, travelers will need to be aware of a whole new set of procedures and protocols, including mandatory mask policies the major U.S. airlines are now enforcing, new TSA guidelines, social-distancing measures, and a potential lack of snacks and food throughout the journey. Here’s what you can expect if you’re flying in the next few months.
Which flights are available?
One of the challenges for travelers is figuring out what kind of flight options are available given how much airlines’ schedules have been trimmed and altered.
“My biggest concern prior to my flight was being able to find a flight that worked with my timeframe,” said Cassie Permenter, a civil engineer who flew for work last week. “I flew from Oakland to Portland and wanted to make it a day trip as I have been able to do in the past. Since the flight options are so limited now that was a real challenge. Southwest provided the best option but out of Oakland there was only one that worked. I used to have multiple options.”
The simplest way to figure out availability is to search using Google Flights. If your dates are flexible, be aware that airlines are adding more domestic capacity as demand starts to return so there could be more flights available toward the end of summer than at the start of it.
If you’re wondering whether some domestic routes may have disappeared entirely, the government’s coronavirus relief package, also known as the CARES Act, effectively prohibited that from happening. In order for the airlines to access the grant funding that was made available to them, they had to agree to maintain at least some degree of service to every U.S. airport where they offered a commercial air service when the bill was signed into law on March 27. But that doesn’t mean they had to maintain the same frequency of those flights. Depending on the route, that could mean a flight that previously operated five times a week might now only be operating once or twice a week.
That was not the case for international routes and there are plenty that were axed entirely. You can find American’s updated international flight schedule for this summer here; Delta’s is available here. United’s international schedule for July is available online as well.
What and how to pack
Before heading out the door, there are a few additional items that you should carry with you that you might not have had in your travel arsenal prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A mask: All major U.S. airlines and many international carriers require that passengers wear a mask during the flight, and the consequences for not doing so can be severe—passengers risk having their flying privileges revoked by Delta, United, and American if they refuse to wear one. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that we all wear face masks in public settings where six feet of separation between yourself and others cannot be established.
- Hand sanitizer and/or wipes: Washing and sanitizing hands and surfaces have also become a must in the era of coronavirus. Travelers will want to pack hand sanitizer and wipes that are readily available to them throughout the journey. Back in March, TSA relaxed one of its main rules regarding carry-on liquids. The agency started allowing passengers to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer in their carry-on bags, up from the usual 3.4-ounce allowance. (Other liquids, gels, and aerosols will still be limited to 3.4 ounces, or 100 milliliters, carried in a quart-size bag.) So, go ahead and bring the big bottle of sanitizer if you need or want to. An AFAR travel hack? Order some of these French soap sheets to bring along for when soap or hand sanitizer is in short supply.
- Food and snacks: Those who wait until they get to the airport or onto the plane to invest in some refreshments for the flight may not want to take that risk. Recent fliers reported that the opportunity for purchasing food and drinks was spotty. “There was no food, nothing was open,” said David MacDonald, a commercial real estate broker who recently traveled from Los Angeles to Alaska for work after getting the negative COVID-19 test results that Alaska requires for visitors who would rather skip the otherwise mandatory quarantine. MacDonald said he was eventually able to find some trail mix and water for purchase at the airport for his trip. Permenter said she was actually surprised to see more businesses open in the terminal at both the Oakland and Portland airports than she thought would be (she estimated about 25 to 30 percent of shops and restaurants were open). Additionally, Southwest provided a drink and snack during the flight, which she was also not expecting—a can of water and a packaged snack mix.
In a recent release outlining its updated guidelines for air travel this summer, the TSA recommended that travelers place carry-on food items into a clear plastic bag and place that bag in a bin when going through security. Separating the food items reduces the chances that a TSA officer will have to pull your bag aside, open it up, and inspect the items.
Getting to the airport
There are a few things to consider:
- Public transportation: If you plan on taking public transportation, there may be reduced service due to a decline in ridership, and you should check the updated schedules to allow for greater time to get to the airport if need be. If you do opt for public transportation, the CDC recommends trying to avoid high-touch surfaces, or if you have to touch them, using hand sanitizer and/or washing your hands as soon as you can afterwards. The agency also recommends practicing social distancing to the best of your ability while riding.
- Rideshare services: The CDC has the same recommendations for rideshare services, in terms of trying to avoid high-touch surfaces and practicing social distancing whenever you can. Uber and Lyft now require that drivers and riders wear masks. The CDC also recommends improving circulation in the car as much as possible, including opening up a window or setting the air-conditioning on nonrecirculation mode.
- Driving and traffic: Whether you’re taking a rideshare service or driving your own car to the airport, you may also want to consider possible changes in traffic patterns. During the coronavirus lockdown measures that took place across the country, road traffic decreased considerably as many people sheltered in place, businesses temporarily closed, and commuters worked from home if possible. That traffic is slowly starting to return as lockdown restrictions are lifted, but the traffic patterns you may be used to prepandemic could have changed for a wide variety of reasons. Make sure to check on Google Maps or other apps that identify travel time several days before your flight to get a sense of how long it might actually take to get to the airport these days.
What to expect at check-in and security
Don’t assume the lines will be short and quick. We have heard from recent fliers that the airport could actually be busier than you might think. Thus, while there is a good chance there will be fewer fliers, it would be safest to plan to arrive around the same time you normally would (prepandemic) before your flight. In fact, TSA recommends arriving to the airport early “as COVID-19 has affected staffing and operations across the airport environment.”
You’re likely to see more plastic shielding panels that have been installed at check-in counters, at travel document checking podiums, and at baggage drop-off locations. Some airports and airlines have installed signage and floor markers indicating the proper distance that passengers should maintain from one another.
“Going up to the check-in desk felt safe as other passengers were allowing for six feet between each other, so while the line appeared long it didn’t take us longer than usual to hand over our bags,” said Laney Boland, luxury sales manager for AFAR, who recently flew on American from Florida to Missouri via Dallas.
Once in the security line, TSA is asking that passengers hold onto their boarding pass (versus handing it over to a TSA officer) and that they place it on the boarding pass reader themselves. After scanning it, travelers should show it to the TSA officer so that the officer can visually inspect it. Travelers are asked to wear a mask up until the checkpoint, but they may need to lower it for the screening.
All TSA officers should be wearing masks and gloves, according to the agency, and some could be wearing eye protection and clear face shields. They should also be routinely cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces in the screening checkpoint area, according to TSA.
In the carry-on luggage screening area, travelers are being asked to place items such as belts, wallets, keys, and phones directly into their carry-on bags instead of into the bins.
Are air travelers social distancing and wearing masks?
Despite the recommendations, social distancing and mask-wearing are not consistent throughout the experience.
“When we walked over to the TSA PreCheck area, social distancing was no longer happening between passengers, and about one-third of the people were in masks,” said Boland.
The same goes for onboard the plane. Reports vary widely about how full flights are and whether any amount of social distancing can or does happen onboard.
According to Boland, “Once we got up to our gate it was very apparent this was an entirely full flight. There were announcements that masks would be required onboard and when boarding groups were called, all individuals gathered as usual to form a bottleneck to get on the plane.”
To better ensure some degree of social distancing, Delta began blocking the middle seats in its main cabins and in Comfort+ and Delta Premium Select seats on all flights starting in April, a policy it has in place through September 30. Customers who prefer to be seated directly next to travel companions and family members can contact the reservations department. The airline said it is also reducing the number of customers on each flight but didn’t provide specifics. Passengers are being boarded 10 at a time to give them added space as they board.
As of the end of April, United customers were no longer able to select seats next to each other or the middle seats on aircraft. The airline is also alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs. Similar to Delta, United is boarding fewer customers at a time as well.
Other carriers, including Southwest and JetBlue, have said they will space passengers out on flights.
In terms of wearing masks, MacDonald reported that about half of the people at the airport were wearing masks. Permenter said that “most everyone in the terminals and on the planes were wearing masks.” She estimated that 80 percent were wearing them, and said that the flight attendants, pilots, and other staff were wearing them as well.
This week, Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the major U.S. airlines, announced that its members have agreed to start “vigorously enforcing” their requirements that all passengers and crew wear masks.
The updated mask policy allows the airlines to suspend flying privileges for passengers who don’t comply, something United, American, and Delta have all said they would do if passengers refuse to wear a mask.
As part of their mandatory mask policies, the airlines have said they will provide masks to passengers who don’t have one.
What will international travel be like?
U.S. carriers reduced their international airlift drastically as travel restrictions went into place in numerous countries throughout the world, including a ban on travel to Europe from the United States that remains in place (most recently, the European Commission recommended extending that ban at least until July 1).
Nevertheless, airlines are slowly adding international capacity to their schedules as countries start reopening to travelers—or announcing plans to.
AFAR’s luxury travel and advisor editor Annie Fitzsimmons flew from the United Kingdom to Switzerland earlier this month and said the experience felt “post-apocalyptic.”
“Everything was surprisingly fast because there were only three flights on the departure board. At Heathrow, this is just so unbelievable. Everything was dark, except for one store selling magazines about how to reduce stress and anxiety in your life, those plastic-wrapped sandwiches, bags of nuts, and bottles of Coke,” said Fitzsimmons.
Almost everyone wore masks on the plane, according to Fitzsimmons, and about half of the people in the airport were wearing them.
Fitzsimmons was traveling with her husband and 19-month-old daughter for a personal family matter and said the experience was more sad than stressful—though wrangling her daughter when everyone is trying to practice social distancing did present some challenges.
“I missed how easy and free it had been to travel,” said Fitzsimmons.
As countries slowly begin to reopen their borders, traveling internationally will look much different than it did before, and it will also vary from one country to the next. Some countries have and will have extensive health and safety protocols in place for international arrivals such as temperature checks, mandatory COVID-19 testing, and quarantine requirements. Others will be more relaxed. It will be imperative for travelers to familiarize themselves with the requirements before they travel so that they will know exactly what will be asked of them and what the process will look and feel like.
Advice from recent fliers
Air travel can be stressful in the best of times, and in pandemic times anxiety, fears, and concerns can be even more heightened. Add to that the fact that not everyone has the same ideas about what kind of health and safety measures are necessary or important, and tensions can get ramped up pretty quickly.
“Bring your utmost patience,” said Fitzsimmons. “My experience was easy because barely anyone was traveling. As things open up, lines will be longer, people’s nerves will be fraying, and there is a huge divide in how people want to handle this virus worldwide, on a government level and personally. So, bring your mental armor, too.”
AFAR’s Boland advised travelers to carry out whatever precautions make them feel more at ease. “Take your time,” said Boland. “Bring your mask, your gloves, your wipes, your sanitizer—everything you need to feel comfortable.”
Boland said she felt pressured by other passengers to keep things moving when she and her boyfriend took the time to wipe down their seating area on the plane. “Just keep in mind that you are not creating a flight delay for allowing yourself the permission to feel safe and comfortable,” she said.
Both Permenter and MacDonald said that overall the flying experience didn’t feel stressful to them.
“Be smart, but it doesn’t have to be scary,” said MacDonald.
For Permenter, the worst part was having to wear a mask the whole time, which made her feel a bit claustrophobic. Wearing a mask for the duration of a flight is something we’ll all have to adjust to. But, she said, mask discomfort aside, “Overall, I did not find it stressful. The experience exceeded my expectations and based on that I don’t feel concerned about my health or contracting coronavirus from that trip. I will admit, though, that I did take a shower as soon as I got home before I hugged my family.”