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En español | Travelers are slowly beginning to take to the skies again, as coronavirus-related restrictions ease, and they’re finding that flying in the COVID-19 era is a very different experience than it was before the pandemic. Among other changes, there are often few if any food options, no magazines in the seat pockets, and all travelers and airline staff wearing masks.
Here’s what to expect if you plan to fly in the coming weeks.
Once you are through security (see new rules) and arrive at the gate, don’t expect an empty concourse. The number of airline passengers screened by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) has ticked up from about 80,000 a day in mid-April to about 596,000 on Aug. 5, though it’s still down substantially from 2.4 million on that day a year earlier. Some airlines are limiting the number of passengers per flight to prevent the crowded conditions that might lead to infection; American Airlines and United Airlines, however, have recently lifted capacity constraints.
Although all airlines have been requiring passengers to wear face masks during boarding and on the plane, some only recently began to enforce the policy and have expanded the requirement to areas throughout airports they serve.
Southwest, American and United announced in July that travelers who refuse to wear masks onboard will not be allowed to fly. “If a customer is unable to wear a face covering or mask for any reason, Southwest regrets that we will be unable to transport the individual,” the company said in a statement.
Now, Frontier, JetBlue (effective Aug. 10) and Alaska (effective Aug. 7) have joined the other airlines, requiring face coverings for passengers over age 2, with no exemptions, on flights and in areas of the airport that the airlines control, such as customer service counters and gates. The only time masks may be removed is for eating or drinking.
Airlines are also handling boarding differently to encourage physical distancing. Southwest Airlines, for one, previously asked customers to line up in two adjacent lines of 30, but it’s now boarding just one line of 10 people at a time.
American Airlines continues to board passengers by groups — it says the row system works only if everyone is at the gate, which is impossible with the number of connecting flights it operates — though agents space people out during boarding.
Spirit asks passengers to scan their own boarding pass and will allow anyone to board at the end of the boarding process to reduce their time on the plane.
Frontier is the first U.S. airline to take passengers’ temperatures with a touchless thermometer before boarding, and will block anyone with a temperature of 100.4 F or higher from flights. Frontier says it “will work with that customer to rebook travel on a later date or otherwise accommodate the traveler’s preferences with respect to their reservation.” Like other airlines, it’s also asking passengers to complete an online “health acknowledgment” before check-in to confirm, among other things, that they will wash or sanitize their hands before boarding, will check their temperature before heading to the airport, and have had no symptoms related to COVID-19 in the previous 14 days.
Air Canada is taking passengers’ temperatures before boarding now as well. That may become a standard practice. In a recent CBS interview, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly urged the TSA to include temperature checks as part of its passenger screening process, rather than leave it up to the individual airlines.
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Seat spacing: As traffic in the air increases, empty middle seats are becoming less common, and passengers may have to fly next to strangers, especially on American and United. JetBlue, though, is blocking middle seats on larger aircraft and aisle seats on smaller planes through at least Oct. 15, and Alaska Airlines has said it will do so through Oct. 31. Frontier Airlines is blocking 20 middle seats and making them visible on its seat map during booking (it drew an outcry when it announced it would charge passengers who wanted a blocked middle seat, and dropped the policy).
Delta says it is capping seating at 50 percent capacity in first class and 60 percent in the main cabin, and blocking middle seats as well as some aisle seats on planes that have two-by-two configurations through Sept. 30. Southwest is blocking middle seats through Sept. 30. Allegiant says it spaces people out as practicable “but on fuller flights, that’s not always possible,” according to a spokesperson. Allegiant fliers can opt to be notified if their flight exceeds 65 percent capacity and can request a credit voucher or choose another flight, though they must pay any fare difference.
Cleaning: All carriers have announced enhanced aircraft cleaning procedures including the use of hospital-grade disinfectants. Southwest reports, “We deep clean each plane from nose to tail for nearly 6-7 hours every night.” Alaska will provide sanitizing wipes on board its planes. Nonetheless, expect many more touchless interactions in flight. Delta claims that the airline is using “state-of-the-art air circulation systems with industrial-grade HEPA filters on many Delta aircraft that extract more than 99.99 percent of particles, including viruses.” And Air Canada notes that, among other cleaning procedures, “We’re rigorously grooming all headrest covers.”
Food: Galleys are largely retired for now. JetBlue’s beverages and snacks come in a sealed bag. Frontier planes will carry only a limited amount of bottled water for sale. In the main cabin on flights between 900 and 2,199 miles, American hands out snacks and bottled water only at boarding; on flights over 2,200 miles, snacks and nonalcoholic drinks are available in-flight. Delta encourages travelers to bring their own snacks and nonalcoholic beverages.
Entertainment: Many airlines have removed seat-back literature, including in-flight magazines (American’s publication, American Way, is a prominent exception). Alaska has moved the content to its app. Unless you’re flying JetBlue, don’t assume you’ll have a seat-back screen; most major carriers, including United and American, were already moving their video entertainment to their apps for viewing in-flight before the pandemic. JetBlue will enable your personal electronic device to act as the seat-back television remote control on some planes.
Personal protection: Most domestic carriers require that customers wear face masks in flight (see above, under Pre-flight).
Wearing masks off the plane: Depending on your destination, expect to keep your face covering on after landing until you leave the airport. Reagan National and Dulles International airports, in Virginia, and Los Angeles International Airport are among the many large airports that require everyone in public spaces to wear face coverings.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 5. It's been updated to reflect new airline procedures.