By Sarah Larson
As the sun rose over Philadelphia International Airport the morning of May 19, the orange-hued light illuminated an airport changed radically from the busy hub that area travelers would have recognized.
No cars were lined up in front of Terminal A to drop off passengers for international flights. No shuttle buses were running to off-site parking lots, nor even to the airport’s own on-site lot; the entire economy parking lot was closed. So few travelers and crew have been coming to the airport in recent weeks that the airport closed the economy lot and opened the short-term and garage parking lots for free use through May 31.
Inside Terminal C, lines at the security checkpoint were moving slowly because only the one checkpoint was operating, people in line were spaced out at 6-foot intervals, and each person had to pull down their required mask to show their face to the TSA agent checking passports and ID cards.
Such is the state of air travel in the midst of the global pandemic of novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. This is life in the “now” normal; we are not through this pandemic yet and have not yet reached a “new” normal.
Travel-related business – hotel stays, airline flights, train trips – has plummeted since stay-at-home orders were put into effect to try to slow the spread of the virus. By early April, airlines and the TSA had reported a staggering 96 percent drop in air travel.
In early May, famed investor Warren Buffett told his company’s shareholders that he had sold off all of Berkshire Hathaway’s airline stocks. Forbes reported that his positions in United, American, Southwest and Delta Airlines had amounted to more than $4 billion. “The world has changed for airlines,” Buffett said.
That change was made very clear to me on that recent trip to the Philadelphia airport and even back in mid-March.
A Hint of Things to Come
On March 11, 2020, I sat with my husband, daughter, and two exchange students watching TV as President Trump addressed the nation regarding the growing pandemic. We looked at each other in shock and confusion as he announced sweeping travel restrictions to and from 26 European countries, including Germany and Spain, where our exchange students were from.
Little more than 12 hours later, we got notice that our student from Germany, Vivien, would have to return to her home country immediately. She spent the remainder of that day hurriedly saying good-bye to her friends at Pennridge High School, her fellow exchange students from around the world, the youth group leaders from our church, Presbyterian Church of Deep Run, and the people at the Pennridge FISH food pantry, where she volunteered on Wednesdays and Saturdays. We had a farewell dinner with family at The Perk on March 12, and the next morning, we drove her to the airport in Philadelphia.
At the time, the airport was still operating mostly normally. It was bustling with international travelers rushing to return to their home countries and welcoming U.S. travelers from abroad who had hurried home before flights were suspended.
Within days, the demand for air travel dropped off a cliff, as federal and state government leaders and public health officials encouraged and then ordered people to stay home. Limiting face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19, they said. On March 31, the U.S. State Department issued a Global Health Advisory Level 4, Do Not Travel. “The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”
By May 19, when we took our Spanish exchange student, Alba, to the airport for her trip home, PHL was like a proverbial ghost town. Few crew members were staffing the check-in desks, few travelers were making their way through the airport, and few people were smiling. It was clear that air travel, for now, is different.
As Memorial Day kicks off what normally would be the summer travel and vacation season, many of us are wondering just how much more difference lies ahead. What will the future of air travel, both for business and for leisure, look like? No one knows for sure, of course, but the TSA already is implementing new changes that will be obvious to anyone who does travel by plane in upcoming months.
TSA Changes Screening Process for Summer Travel
On May 21, the Transportation Security Administration announced changes to its procedures for the summer travel season. These changes to the security screening process aim to reduce the potential for cross-contamination at the security checkpoint in an effort to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the agency said in a statement. These changes already are being implemented at airports nationwide and are expected to be in place by mid-June.
According to TSA, travelers can expect to:
- Keep possession of their boarding passes. Instead of handing their boarding pass to a TSA officer at the travel document podium, travelers should now place their boarding pass (paper or electronic) on the boarding pass reader themselves. After scanning, travelers should hold their boarding pass toward the TSA officer to allow the officer to visually inspect it. This change reduces the TSA officer’s need to touch a passenger’s boarding pass thus reducing potential for cross-contamination.
- Separate food for X-ray screening. Passengers should place their carry-on food items into a clear plastic bag and place that bag into a bin. Food items often trigger an alarm during the screening process; separating the food from the carry-on bag lessens the likelihood that a TSA officer will need to open the carry-on bag and remove the food items for a closer inspection. This requirement allows social distancing, reduces the TSA officer’s need to touch a person’s container of food and reduces potential for cross-contamination. TSA Precheck members do not need to remove items from their bags.
- Pack smart. Passengers should take extra care to ensure that they do not have any prohibited items, such as liquids, gels or aerosols in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces, in their carry-on bags (water bottles, shampoo). In response to COVID-19, TSA is allowing one liquid hand sanitizer container, up to 12 ounces per passenger, in carry-on bags. Passengers are required to remove the hand sanitizer from the carry-on bag before being submitted for X-ray screening. If a bag is found to contain a prohibited item, passengers may be directed to return to the divestiture table outside of security with their carry-on bags to remove the item and dispose of the item. The passenger may also be directed back outside of security to remove items that should originally have been divested (such as laptops, liquids, gels, and aerosols, and large electronics) and resubmit their property for X-ray screening. By resolving alarms in this manner, TSA officers will need to touch the contents inside a carry-on bag much less frequently, reducing the potential for cross-contamination.
- Practice social distancing. Passengers should allow for social distancing to reduce direct contact between employees and travelers whenever possible without compromising security. Noticeable adjustments leading up to the security checkpoint include increasing the distance between individuals as they enter the security checkpoint, placing visual reminders of appropriate spacing on checkpoint floors and staggering the use of lanes where feasible. No two airports are alike, so this could look a little different at each airport.
- Wear facial protection. TSA officers at checkpoints now are using facial protection. Travelers are encouraged to wear face protection to the checkpoint as well. Please note, however, passengers may need to adjust it during the screening process. Travelers also are encouraged to remove items such as belts, and items from their pockets, like wallets, keys and phones, and put them directly into their carry-on bags instead of into the bins to reduce touch-points during the screening process.
U.S. Government Continues to Caution Against International Travel
While TSA is changing the screening process, and airlines are mulling how to keep their crew and passengers safe, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that people limit their movement and travel only when absolutely necessary. The U.S. State Department also continues to advise U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel.
The State Department noted that “Many countries are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and implementing travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines, closing borders, and prohibiting non-citizens from entry with little advance notice. Airlines have cancelled many international flights and several cruise operators have suspended operations or cancelled trips. If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe.”
Until the pandemic is over, or at least until global civilization moves into the next phase of “normal” life, travel is likely to be curtailed. Those of us with wanderlust may have to make do with dreaming of our next trip. Travelocity.com has a wealth of planning resources, which it is promoting with the tag line, “Wonder now. Wander later.”
For now, my family will use WhatsApp to connect with our exchange students who are now back home in Germany and Spain. And you can be sure that we will be dreaming of the trips that we will take to visit them and, hopefully, that they will be able to make back here to the United States, one day, in the “new” normal.