As the country begins to open up, here’s what the airport experience is like.
Slowly but surely, the United States is opening back up to travel after being halted by the pandemic, with airlines increasing their routes and flight frequency. If you do decide to fly this summer, the experience might be quite unlike what you’re probably used to. Here’s what you can expect from both major international as well as regional airports across the country today–but keep in mind that each airport is very different, so your mileage may vary. On top of that, everything from TSA regulations to concessions openings can change at the drop of a hat due to the fluidity of the pandemic.
Security Lines Are Much Shorter Than Normal
Given the pandemic, relatively few people are traveling, particularly by air. According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the number of travelers transiting through airports nationwide each day is only about 10 to 14% of the total on the same days last year. One of the pleasant side effects is the reduced congestion at airport security, especially at major airports that can see wait times approach an hour or longer under normal circumstances. “The security gates at Chicago O’Hare were practically empty, and we walked right up to the TSA agent,” says Brian Coughlin, creator of storytelling app Hear It. If you do encounter a line, know that you’ll have to remain socially distanced within it.
At some airports, however, operational changes at security are actually creating queues, despite there being so few passengers. “Security lines are getting longer as the TSA shuts down and consolidates many of their checkpoints,” says Bob Bacheler, founder and managing director of medical transport company Flying Angels. But those changes paired with the smaller crowds actually mean that you might net out at roughly standard wait times. “My last TSA transit in Philadelphia took about 15 minutes, which was average for pre-COVID times,” said Bacheler of his recent airport experience, when there were fewer security lines open than usual.
The TSA Might Ask You to Remove Your Mask Briefly
While masks are mandatory for passengers to wear on their flights with all major U.S. airlines, most airports, along with the TSA, highly encourage travelers to don them. (Some individual states, including New York, have rules requiring the wearing of masks in public spaces.) But in order to verify your identity, TSA agents will need to see your face unobstructed. In early May, the TSA released a press release stating that, “Passengers are encouraged to wear facial protection and yes, individuals may be asked to momentarily lower their facial covering for identity verification purposes” or if it sets off screening equipment.
The Security Screening Process Has Changed Slightly
The TSA has implemented new procedures that minimize the risk of virus transmission throughout the security process. TSA agents will no longer hold your physical boarding pass, so you will have to place it on the scanner yourself, as you do with mobile boarding passes. There are also new rules for what needs to be removed from your bag and placed in a separate bin—namely food, as its removal is supposed to decrease the chance that your bag will need to be manually searched. If your bag does need to be searched, or if you need to be patted down, TSA agents will wear fresh gloves.
TSA PreCheck Might Be Closed
Unfortunately for TSA PreCheck members, you might not get to enjoy your preferential security experience. “In many airports, Philadelphia included, the TSA has eliminated the dedicated PreCheck lines and gone back to giving passengers a card which allows them to keep their shoes on,” says Bacheler. So while you might have to take your laptop out of your bag, at least you don’t have to worry about dirty socks.
You Might Have Your Temperature Checked
One symptom of COVID-19 is feverish body temperatures, so some airports, including LAX, are testing new technology to help scan passengers for potential infections. Rather than having an employee take your temperature with a handheld device, airports are using remote infrared cameras, which protects both staff and passengers from potential transmission.
Concessions May Not Be Open
Once you get through security, you shouldn’t necessarily expect a normal airport experience: in many airports, the majority of restaurants and shops are closed. “There was one quick-service restaurant open and selling food, but we opted not to go there,” Shelby Sabat, a publicist with firm Murphy O’Brien, says of her trip through normally bustling LAX in Los Angeles. “We went to the Hudson News shop to buy packaged food, like Chex Mix and bottled water.”
In other airports, however, business is continuing at relatively normal levels. “Charlotte was quite interesting last week as they were busy when I transited,” says Bacheler. “Many of the restaurants were open but offering take-away only.”
In either case, it’s not a bad idea to plan ahead and bring your own food through security—just make sure you don’t pack any liquids—because most airlines are no longer serving food and drink on their flights. Better to be prepared with snacks than to go hungry during your journey.
Lounges Might Have Reduced Their Services, If They're Open at All
Many lounges have closed entirely, but the ones that are open have eliminated or altered some of their services. Showers and buffets, for instance, are a thing of the past—at least for now. Some lounges have also reduced their capacity in order to encourage proper social distancing.
Cleaning Robots Might Be Patrolling the Concourse
Last month, Pittsburgh became the first airport to test robots that clean with UV light, so don’t be surprised if you see one roll by you on the concourse. It’s quite likely that other airports will follow suit if the robots are proven effective.
You Won’t Have to Wait Long for Your Checked Luggage, But You Might Have to Go Through Additional Screening
Another perk to smaller crowds at the airport—speedy baggage delivery. “Upon arriving in Newark, it normally takes one hour to get our bags at baggage claim, and this time it took less than 10 minutes,” says Shabat.
But you might get tied up at another coronavirus screening checkpoint, especially if you’re flying to Hawaii, which has strict quarantine protocols in place. “The biggest difference was getting off the plane in Honolulu and being met by National Guard troops who scanned our temperatures,” says political research and communications consultant Ryan Micik. “We then signed two forms pledging to self-quarantine for 14 days and had our cell phone numbers and addresses verified before being allowed to proceed through the airport.”