Here's everything you need to know about flying in the COVID-19 era

As U.S. coronavirus hot spots continue to emerge at an alarming rate, air travel is adapting.
Flying in the age of COVID SQUARE
The Transportation Security Administration now allows passengers to travel with up to a 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer per person compared to the normal 3.4 ounces. TODAY illustration
/ Source: TODAY

As states continue to reopen despite an alarming number of coronavirus hot spots emerging across the country, Americans are slowly returning to air travel this summer. Data from the Transportation Security Administration shows a steady uptick in its checkpoint travel numbers, from a low of 87,534 on April 14 (compared with 2.2 million the year before) to 623,624 on June 25.

While numerous U.S. airports and airlines have rolled out safety measures that include temperature screenings, required face coverings and more rigorous cleaning of planes between flights, whether or not it's safe to fly again comes down to personal risk factors.

If you're ready to get back to air travel, here’s everything you need to know about flying in the age of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Packing a bag and going to the airport

What if my ID or passport is expired?

If your driver’s license or state-issued ID expired on or after March 1 and you’ve been unable to renew it because of state agency closures nationwide, the TSA is accepting expired IDs a year after expiration. The Department of Homeland Security also extended the deadline to upgrade to a Real ID-compliant identification to Oct. 1, 2021.

Regarding international travel, the TSA has not said anything about expired passports; however, according to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs, as of June 11, nearly a dozen passport agencies moved into phase one of reopening operations.

Should I bring food to the airport and on flights?

Numerous airlines are encouraging travelers to bring food with them. Hawaiian Airlines and Boston's Logan International Airport said that guests are welcome to bring food on flights and in the terminals.

“No matter what airline, if you need to eat, I would take a little snack,” said Deb Peeney, a frequent flyer who earlier shared her May 26 flight experience with TODAY. “I had my water bottle with me, and then a mask or two masks in case you lose it.”

Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokesperson, told TODAY that the agency highly recommends passengers put all carry-on food items into a clear plastic bag for X-ray screening. Since food often triggers security alarms during screening, the bag not only helps protect food from contamination, it also reduces the need for a TSA agent to rummage through your belongings.

Should I bring my own hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes?

Airports including Logan International have added free hand sanitizer stations throughout their facilities, and airlines like Hawaiian, Delta and United are even offering disinfectant wipes upon boarding. If your airline doesn’t provide wipes, Farbstein said that travelers may bring “individually packaged alcohol or anti-bacterial wipes in carry-on or checked luggage.” Check to see if your airport has installed hand sanitizer kiosks or if it has travel-sized hand sanitizers for sale, as is the case at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport by passenger traffic.

If you decide to bring hand sanitizer, the TSA is currently allowing passengers to travel with up to a 12-ounce bottle per person. This amount is up from the normal 3.4 ounces, but all other liquids like water or shampoo must adhere to the 3.4-ounce limit. Farbstein said that those who decide to bring a large hand sanitizer will need to be screened separately, which may add time to the security checkpoint.

Should I bring my own face mask?

Aligning with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, most airlines and airports are requiring everyone — including crew members — to wear some kind of face covering at all times except while eating or drinking. Currently, the only exception is for children and those with a medical condition that might prevent them from using one.

Check your airline or airport website to see if masks are complimentary or available for sale. While the Atlanta airport is not providing masks to passengers, a spokesperson for Logan Airport said vending machines will be selling masks as well as additional protective items in terminals A and B. Airlines are also taking the initiative in providing customers with face masks; Southwest, Hawaiian and American airlines are offering a limited quantity of masks on flights.

And for parents traveling with infants, airlines have made an exception for “very young children.” While the CDC outlines that children under 2 years old need not wear a mask, airlines have not identified a specific age restriction. See here for companies that are producing child-sized masks.

At the airport

Are airport buses and shuttles still operating?

Airports like Logan have greatly scaled down bus and shuttle operations, said Samantha Decker, a spokesperson for the airport. But for those still in operation, Decker said all buses and shuttles are cleaned with disinfectant on a nightly basis. During the day, drivers are instructed to wear a mask and gloves and clean high-touch surfaces.

At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, bus and shuttle rides will be capped at 15 people, according to the website, and have adjusted schedules. These rules are subject to change and are updated frequently on airport websites.

Are there any touchless options?

Over the past few months, Logan Airport has worked alongside concessions and partners to incorporate touchless pay options, said Decker. It is one of 34 nationwide airports, including San Francisco International Airport, that is partnered with Clear, an app-based biometric identity verification service that uses iris and facial recognition to board a flight.

“You could use your face to buy a beer because you are your driver's license and you are your credit card,” Caryn Seidman-Becker, Clear’s CEO, told TODAY in a video conference. “You're now hearing airports saying, ‘Hey, we want touchless payment in the airport.’’’

A company that was born out of security concerns following 9/11, Clear has attracted the attention of people looking for a safer way to fly. Today, Seidman-Becker said the company has 5 million members, a number that continues to increase as more people search for a touchless experience during the coronavirus era.

Clear allows you to use your face, fingerprint or iris as a credit card, passport and plane ticket. Airports have dedicated Clear lanes to quicken the TSA process, and there is even a function allowing for face-scanning biometric lounge access. There is no need for a boarding pass or membership card since your face serves as both, according to the website.

Clear operates under TSA guidelines, but for Seidman-Becker, bringing the technology to the skies is simply the beginning of a much larger rollout. Outside of airports — like at restaurants, stadiums and hotels — a new Health Pass feature connects members' faces to a CDC coronavirus questionnaire, indicating any symptoms and providing a thermal temperature gauge.

“I think you should look at every card in your wallet and think over the next few years you will no longer need it,” Seidman-Becker said. “And so whether it be your building access card to get into the building, your credit card at a supermarket, identity is so important and biometrics are the best form of identity. And you got to do it in a way that is safer, is more secure, protects privacy and gives consumers a better experience.”

What is different about TSA procedures?

It may be easier to answer what hasn’t changed. Last month, the TSA announced new safety precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Farbstein said that TSA officers will practice social distancing and wear masks at all times; plexiglass barriers are also in place. And front-line personnel now wear nitrile gloves during screenings. As a passenger, you can even request that a TSA agent grab a new pair of gloves.

Passengers in lines are required to wear face coverings, although Farbstein said TSA officers may ask them to adjust their masks when visually confirming identities.

And instead of handing your boarding pass to a TSA agent at the travel document podium, passengers will scan the paper or electronic pass themselves. Afterward, travelers can hold the boarding pass up for the agent to approve it. Farbstein said doing so will reduce the likelihood of cross-contamination between employees and customers.

Are restaurants open at major airports?

Logan Airport’s website lists 16 restaurants, food courts and “grab-and-go options” that remain open within its four terminals. These include Dunkin’, WPizza by Wolfgang Puck, Boston Tops and Potbelly Sandwich Shop. Like most airports, Logan's food options have been dramatically reduced.

Meanwhile, O’Hare has temporarily closed almost 90 restaurants, cafes and general food vendors, according to its website. On the other hand, San Francisco International has all but 20 restaurants open; a spokesperson told TODAY via email that the airport will only do takeout service for the time being.

Are airports still offering Global Entry and TSA PreCheck programs?

The TSA PreCheck program, which enables expedited security screening to members at more than 200 airports, has largely remained intact, although some airports have temporarily closed or consolidated their Precheck lanes due to low traveler numbers. The San Francisco airport has kept all Precheck and Clear lanes open, according to its website.

If you're looking to apply to the program, the TSA reported that there have not been any delays in approvals since centers have stayed open throughout most of the country.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all CBP program enrollment centers will be closed until at least July 6 out of an abundance of caution. This includes Global Entry, a program that allows members to bypass customs checkpoints upon returning to the U.S. Global Entry approval means you're automatically enrolled in TSA Precheck as well.

The New York Times suggests travelers apply for conditional approval online and later complete the process at an airport upon landing in the U.S. Doing so does not require a prebooked interview.

On a flight

How are airlines enforcing face masks? Do I have to wear one?

Airlines require that passengers and crew wear a face covering unless a medical condition prevents you from doing so. But compliance is another issue. The New York Times reported numerous accounts of passengers on planes and in airports in which people were not abiding by the safety parameters. Last week, American Airlines recently banned a New York man from its flights after reviewing an incident in which he was kicked off a flight for refusing to wear a face covering.

To ensure masks are worn on its flights, United Airlines released a website update stating that refusal to abide by the airline’s face covering policy will result in a loss of “travel privileges on United for a certain period of time.”

Other airlines, including Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue and Southwest, have followed up with similar policies.

“If a customer refuses to wear a face covering after being asked, crewmembers will work to de-escalate the situation to the best of their ability to gain compliance,” Derek Dombrowski, a spokesperson for JetBlue, wrote to TODAY in an email. “If the crewmember is unable to gain compliance after following our de-escalations process, the customers will be reported to ground security personnel and will be reviewed for future travel eligibility on JetBlue.”

As mask usage becomes increasingly politicized, Alaska Airlines recently announced that starting in July, the company's flight attendants will be "empowered to issue a final notice to any guest who repeatedly refuses to wear a mask or face covering on board our aircraft." That warning will come in the form of a yellow card handed to the passenger, meaning the individual could be suspended from traveling with the airline for a period of time. "That would be a decision we do not take lightly," reads a statement on the company's blog. "By working together, we do more for the common good.

Are boarding and deplaning different during the COVID-19 outbreak?

A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Aviation, which oversees O’Hare and Midway International airports, said that travelers are required to wear a mask or face covering when nearing the gates and boarding an aircraft. As an added reminder, increased signage promoting social distancing and the use of face coverings have been posted in O’Hare, as seen in many other airports nationwide.

Southwest has started boarding only 10 people at a time instead of the usual 30 to promote social distancing. Numerous airlines have also reduced their total boarding capacity. Hawaiian Airlines capped its passenger limit at 70%, a spokesperson said. And while guests are permitted to walk within the cabin, the airline recommends passengers remain seated unless heading to the restroom.

When it comes to exiting planes, airlines are trying to deplane by individual row from front to back. Peeney, the frequent flyer, said on both her Southwest and American flights, the crew kept people in their seats. She said the whole process was significantly “more organized” since no one was pushing to the front.

Do airports or airlines have a health screening process?

Although more airlines are poised to follow suit, only Frontier Airlines has a temperature screening process in place, said Jack Filene, the airline’s senior vice president of customers, in a phone interview earlier this month with TODAY.

“Every customer and every crew member before boarding the aircraft has their temperature screened using an infrared touchless thermometer; (it) takes about half a second as you board,” he said. “Any passenger or crew member that has a temperature of 100.4 or higher won’t be boarding.”

Though this may be a comforting sight to some, CDC scientists contest the effectiveness of thermal screenings since many people who have COVID-19 have been shown to remain asymptomatic.

Currently, some airlines are making potential flyers fill out a symptoms questionnaire and urging those who may be sick to stay home. These include Frontier, United and Alaska airlines.

How is the seating on planes?

For the time being, most domestic airlines have effectively removed the middle seating for use except if family members want to sit nearby. Previously, airlines announced this measure would expire in July; however, some, like Southwest and Delta, updated their protocols, calling for the middle seats to remain open on flights until Sept. 30. But to alleviate the financial burden of COVID-19, American Airlines just announced it will not be restricting middle seats effective July 1.

Airlines are also cleaning all in-cabin surfaces after each flight with disinfectant and an electrostatic spray that kills up to 99.99% of bacteria and viruses, according to American Airlines.

What has changed about boarding with children?

In many airports like Logan International, designated family areas have been marked with signs to allow family members or those traveling together to sit together.

A spokesperson for Hawaiian Airlines said that an added change is they will not be pre-boarding families with small children to promote social distancing.

What are the food and drink restrictions?

No two airlines have an identical food option during the coronavirus pandemic. Some, like Hawaiian Airlines, still offer complimentary meals. Others have implemented a snack bag; United’s contains a wrapped sanitizer wipe, 8.5-ounce bottled water, Dutch stroopwafel and package of pretzels. Still others have completely suspended food services and are instead encouraging passengers to bring their own food, although American and Frontier will serve food upon request.

Beverages have been handled similarly. Limited bottles of water are available on JetBlue flights. Recently, however, some domestic airlines — such as Delta, American and EasyJet— have suspended in-flight alcohol except during long international trips.

At your destination

Do I have to self-quarantine?

More than 15 states have asked travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days. States from all corners of the nation have implemented this measure, so checking your travel plans and knowing if you need to quarantine can be important. As a result, traditional big-ticket vacation destinations like Hawaii have been impacted.

In a joint effort to control the number of cases within their states, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey governors are requiring travelers from these eight “hot spot” states to self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering the region: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Texas.

The order, which came on Wednesday, is mandatory in the three states and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stated that anyone in violation of it could be subject to a $2,000 fine, increasing to $10,000 for future offenses.

“I think it’s important to note that in the era of the pandemic, no activity is going to be risk-free,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious disease physician, told TODAY. “And everything is a nonzero risk. And each individual is going to have to think about what risk is tolerable to them and what risk isn’t.”

CORRECTIONS & CLARIFICATIONS (June 29, 2020, 11:02 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the number of airports where Clear operates. Clear is currently in 34 airports, not 24 airports.

Additionally, Clear's Health Pass feature isn't used at airports; it's currently only used for airport employees.