What to Expect the Next Time You Travel: From the Airport, Gate, Boarding and Aircraft

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What You May Encounter The Next Time You Fly

All of us know that we will experience many changes in the travel process as ‘non-essential’ air travel opens again. But what will it look like? And what are the airports and airlines doing to make the process safer? And is it sustainable over time? These are all questions that we have asked ourselves and have heard voiced from other industry pundits as well. So, let’s take a look at what has been, and or is being, implemented throughout the travel journey in the U.S.A. at this time.

Airports:

The safety, health and well-being of travelers is always a priority at any airport. But with COVID-19 cleaning and disinfecting have certainly been stepped up. For example, at our local airport, Seattle Tacoma International, they have increased the frequency of cleaning with medical-grade products with an emphasis on high-touch areas and over 250 hand sanitizer stations have been added throughout the terminal. The Seattle Port Authority says that they have spent 5,270 hours cleaning and disinfecting each week and have “spritzed, sprayed, and dispensed over 1,010 gallons of hand sanitizer, more than 4,500 ounces of disinfecting spray and 1,135 containers of sanitizer wipes. “And we are certain other airports are following similar safety and disinfecting procedures.

Airports are also working on quickly converting bathrooms that aren’t already touch less to new fixtures for paper towels and automatic soap dispensers, as well as, faucets that are sensor-based and toilets with automatic flush features.

Every two hours the security checkpoints are being cleaned while deep cleaning and sanitizing TSA bins occurring after hours. Airports are also adding electrostatic sprayers that dispense a mist onto surfaces for an even coating of disinfectant that kills germs, such as COVID-19, in an effort to disinfect surfaces more often.

Plastic protective barriers that buffer interactions between travelers and airport employees are also common place, much like what we are experiencing in grocery stores, drug stores, etc.

In an effort to observe social distancing, decals are found on the floor throughout the facility at check-in counters, self-serve kiosks, baggage drop, baggage claim and throughout the TSA process. Travelers are also expected to wear a face covering throughout any touch points, to meet Center for Disease Control (CDC) requirements.

The Gate:

There are decals to remind people to observe 6 feet (2 meters) of social distancing during interactions with customer service representatives and other passengers. Seats in the gate area may be blocked in an effort to adhere to social distancing.  Overhead monitors and screens often contain reminders about this as well. And plastic barriers are in place at customer service desks.

Boarding Procedures:

Currently, many airlines have already started testing new methods of boarding in an effort to reduce the amount of cross passenger contact and observe social distancing.  Passengers are asked to stay seated until their row is announced, and many airlines are boarding in smaller groups, back –to-front.

But compared to the aircraft itself, which has well circulated air as long as the engines are running, the boarding procedure and area is poorly ventilated with passengers in close proximity to one another. Boarding is the riskiest part of air travel right now, at least from a COVID-19 perspective. Just think back to the crowded queue where we have historically been smashed together like sardines at the gate, on the jetway, and en-route to our seat prior to take-off.

There are some deceptively simple solutions that in the long run may change the way we board. Over the years, boarding order has typically started with anyone needing extra assistance (small children, the elderly, etc.), followed by higher status flyers on down to those of us traveling in steerage. It is not only an inefficient and time-consuming process, but it is a stressful one as well. Passengers lined up like they are on a commuter train, bumping into one another, hoisting bags into overhead bins, or walking up and down looking for available bin space is something we have all witnessed and experienced. Let’s face it; this is a COVID-19 droplet cross contamination haven.

In a poorly ventilated area like the jet bridge, packing people in close proximity even while wearing facemasks is a highly risky scenario and is needlessly dicey when there are better ways to accomplish the boarding procedure.

A few changes could include the following: boarding from the back of the aircraft forward; boarding window seats first, followed by the middle seats, then aisle seats. Organizing these sections in small groups in the gate area before sending them down the jetway takes time and space but could definitely lead to a new and improved boarding process. Another scenario that could reduce the number of people each traveler comes into contact with is boarding from both the aircraft nose and the tail of the aircraft, but this has its own set of organizational issues and would require a group of passengers loading from the tarmac via a set of mobile stairs, etc. Whichever changes to the boarding procedure an airline elects to implement there will assuredly be a learning-curve by both the ground crew and the passengers themselves, so it may be a good thing that load factors aren’t too high as these new strategies are put into place.

A total 180-degree approach to carry-on luggage could also make the process far more efficient and reduce the number of touchpoints as well. By promoting and rewarding checked luggage there would be fewer gate-side check-ins, less shifting and shuffling of overhead bags, and a faster loading process overall.

As biometrics become more prevalent the use of scanners to match your face with your identity will further reduce the contact between ground staff and travelers. This will also speed up the process as the amount of time spent fumbling for boarding passes and/or mobile phones will be eliminated. The biometric software needs some tweaks, but it is well on its way as it is already being utilized for some border control entry points.

The Aircraft:

Planes are equipped with hospital-grade HEPA filters that typically remove 99.95% of airborne particulates.

The air flows from the ceiling to the floor and creates completely new air in the cabin 20 to 30 times an hour so the air filtration systems cycle outside air onboard every 3 minutes. If you want more filtered air, be certain to open your personal air vent after you’re seated – that air is filtered for your seat only. Studies have shown that due to the frequency of air circulation, cabin air filtration is comparable to what is found in hospitals.

Airlines are requiring their guests to wear face coverings throughout any touch points and during the flight experience except when consuming food or drink. Most airlines have masks available for passengers in case they don’t have them.  If travelers refuse to wear a face mask they will be denied boarding and, in many cases, given the opportunity to reschedule their flight. Details about these requirements are provided to passengers in their pre-trip communications.

For the time being, some airlines are providing travelers more space and flexibility in order to achieve social distancing onboard by blocking off all middle seats on large aircraft and aisle seats on smaller aircraft.

In the U.S.A. all airline employees and business partners who cannot maintain six feet of social distance during interactions with travelers or co-workers, including pilots, flight attendants, and customer service representatives.

Aircraft Cleaning:

Airlines are continuing to use disinfectants that use high-grade, EPA registered disinfectants to sanitize critical touch points like tray tables, seat belts, overhead bins, armrests and lavatories, etc.

New cleaning techniques and equipment are being implemented by many airlines to reduce the already low risk of onboard transmission often include the following: 1) Electrostatic disinfectant sprayers, which emit a safe, high grade EPA cleaning solution that sanitize the overhead bins, armrests, tray tables, seatbelts, lavatories, etc. 2) between flights, dedicated cleaning crews cover the most critical areas using the high-grade EPA disinfectant. They also clean the pilot/flight attendant spaces. 3) Individual hand sanitizer wipes are available onboard.

With all of the procedures in place, it is beginning to feel like air travel is perhaps safer than it ever has been – at least from a COVID-19 perspective! One thing is for certain, these changes will continue to be tailored over time and they are most likely here to stay for the foreseeable future.


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