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Coronavirus and Plane Travel: What to Expect if You’re Flying


You touch a lot of things when you travel by plane, from the self check-in screen to your plane’s tray table, and you are near a lot of people. As the number of coronavirus cases increases, United States 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, 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 at the airport and onboard.

Surfaces can harbor the virus, so janitorial staff at airports across the country are cleaning more frequently and paying special attention to disinfecting high-touch areas like handrails, elevator buttons, door handles, counter tops and food court areas. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, for example, 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 in addition to existing cleaning equipment. It has also produced 850 posters, created by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, outlining steps to protect against seasonal cold and flu, including novel coronavirus. (At St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport in Florida, the new signs are in English and Spanish.)

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.

Passengers are more 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 the sky bridges that connect the terminal and the parking garage.

Airlines are setting up their own hand sanitizer dispensers at places like check-in counters and gates in addition to the ones the airports are installing. Delta Air Lines said it will start increasing those at its hubs, including Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, Detroit International, Los Angeles International, and New York’s John F. Kennedy International airports first, because those serve the highest volume of customers.

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.

Self check-in kiosks will be getting multiple wipe downs a day, but you might want to consider carrying your own hand sanitizer and wipes for the journey.

Airport lounges, those sanctuaries that carriers set up for frequent fliers or first class passengers and airline credit card holders, see a high volume of travelers stopping by before a flight to grab a free drink or snack, and some have started using fingertip scans to admit members. Both Alaska 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.

And 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.

The Transportation Safety Agency 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.

T.S.A. operating procedures require personnel to wear nitrile gloves when conducting screening duties with passengers. Travelers who need to be patted down or have their carry-on bag searched can ask the T.S.A. 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 T.S.A. 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.

The Association of Flight Attendants — the union representing nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines — 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. Alaska Airlines is encouraging passengers to fill up water bottles in the gate area before boarding, so cups won’t be needed at all; Alaska is also ending its warm towel service in first class, and recycling will be suspended so flight attendants can avoid touching passenger-handled items. The airline is encouraging passengers to wipe down tray tables and armrests with their own disinfectant wipes.

Planes will also undergo enhanced cleaning, according to multiple airlines. Delta Air Lines has begun fogging the interiors of some airplanes that are arriving from international destinations with disinfectant; United said it will also begin fogging planes arriving into its hubs from international destinations. The fogging, with tray tables lowered and overhead bins and lavatory doors open, is performed after an initial cleaning. Delta said it is prioritizing arrivals from the hardest hit countries and is securing additional machines so it can treat more planes.

Some international airlines are taking further precautions: Singapore International Airlines, for instance, now requires flight crew to wear masks onboard.

The C.D.C. has offices and quarantine stations at 20 United States airports. Passengers coming in from one of that agency’s Level 3 travel zones — currently China, South Korea, Iran and Italy — will fill out travel history and health forms, have their temperature taken, and give contact information. Those who seem ill will be evaluated further by a C.D.C. public health officer and taken to a hospital if necessary. Those who have been in Level 3 countries in the previous two weeks but exhibit no symptoms will be sent on to their final destination with information on what to do if they begin feeling ill.

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