Baltimore Sun

Flying won’t be plain sailing

Numerous steps being undertaken to ensure airline travelers’ health

- By Niraj Chokshi

Airports this Memorial Day weekend are likely to be far emptier than usual, but people who plan to travel can expect to encounter lots of changes and new inconvenie­nces.

Take security. As travelers wait in line to be screened, they can expect to see signs and other markings reminding them to maintain their distance from one another, the Transporta­tion Security Administra­tion said. The agents checking identifica­tion and boarding passes will be wearings masks, gloves and, in some cases, eye protection.

Passengers will also be asked to scan their own boarding passes to limit contagion, the agency said. And because food often triggers alarms, travelers will have to place meals they bring with them in a separate bin so agents don’t have to handle them.

Most of the agency’s other rules will remain in place, but one will be relaxed: Passengers can now bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer, up from the standard 3 ounces.

Airlines have been adopting many changes too. Travelers who need to check a bag or print a ticket might find sneeze guards separating them from a ticketing agent, a precaution being taken in some locations by United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. If they opt to use a kiosk, passengers may interact with one that they don’t have to even touch.

In the airport, many shops, restaurant­s and lounges will most likely be closed.

Many airlines have adjusted the boarding process, with some loading planes back to front to limit contact among passengers and others boarding fewer people at a time to limit crowding at the gate or on the jet bridge.

But while terminals may be largely empty, there’s no guarantee that the same will be true of flights. Most flights are more than half-empty, but despite a stark decline in the number of people traveling, a small fraction of flights — about 1 out of every 12 — is more than 70% full.

Airlines have taken different approaches to limit the number of people on board. United said it would prevent middle seats from being purchased, though it might still assign them on fuller flights. It will also let customers rebook a flight if the one for which they are scheduled is more than 70% full.

Delta said it would cap seating at 50% in first class and 60% elsewhere. American Airlines has said it will block half of all middle seats on its planes. And Southwest Airlines, which does not assign seats, has said it will leave about a third of its seats empty through July.

On board, most major airlines now require passengers and flight crews to wear face masks, though enforcemen­t of that policy has been lackluster, according to some people who have flown in recent weeks. Food and beverage service has been restricted in many cases and, when available, meals are largely being replaced with snacks in sealed bags and boxes.

Most airlines are cleaning planes regularly, sometimes between every flight, and offering passengers sanitizer, masks and other products to stay clean too.

The various safety measures that airlines have put in place may reassure some, but most of the traveling public remains at home. The number of people screened at TSA airport checkpoint­s remains more than 90% below last year’s levels.

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