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Is it safe to fly again? Here's how airport screenings are changing

U.S. airlines and the TSA are implementing health and safety measures to make passengers feel more comfortable flying in the coronavirus era.
Is it safe to fly again
TODAY illustration
/ Source: TODAY

On May 26, Deb Peeney flew for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began. The clinical education specialist based in Albany, New York, watched the masked pilots and crew crossing the jet bridge, and she felt safe. With an entire row of seats to herself, the 59-year-old frequent flyer said she had never seen a cleaner plane.

“I would have no problem flying again,” she told TODAY by phone. “Flight attendants all had their masks on; I felt very clean. Everybody was very considerate, I thought, of each other.”

It was a moment of relief for Peeney, who had spent the previous night anxiously researching Southwest Airline’s guidelines (she flew American Airlines on her return trip, which also went smoothly). Viral images of highly congested flights had haunted her. She relaxed once she saw everyone following social distancing protocol.

And it appears Americans are slowly shedding their fear of flying. The number of travelers passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints has been steadily rising from its nadir of 87,534 on April 14 (compared with 2.2 million the year before) to 441,255 on June 7. Still, a Harris Poll conducted last month found that 48% of Americans said they would not be comfortable taking a flight until the pandemic is over.

With summer just around the corner, is it really safe to fly again?

“Because of the heightened perception of risk in an airport and on planes, you might actually see, paradoxically, less transmission there than, for example, at a restaurant or a swimming pool,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious disease physician, told TODAY. “A lot of people worry about these common-touch surfaces that are on airplanes, and it’s very clear now that the epidemiology of this infection supports a lesser role for surface transmission.”

What are airlines doing to help keep passengers safe?

While no two airlines have reacted the same to the pandemic, most U.S. airlines have independently updated their safety procedures as of June 1 — resulting in an inconsistent application of guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Spirit Airlines’ website outlines new updates including self-bag tag kiosks, and passengers can now opt to scan their tickets and board at the end of the process if they wish.

Like most major airlines, American Airlines requires all passengers to wear face coverings. Additionally, its cleaning process involves electrostatic spraying, which it says "eliminates 99.999% of viruses and bacteria within 10 minutes and creates a protective layer for up to seven days."

Southwest Airlines says it cleans each plane "from nose to tail" for nearly six to seven hours each night. The airline also promises to keep middle seats open through at least July 31 and has suspended snack and beverage service on all flights except those traveling more than 250 miles, during which flight attendants offer a snack mix and cans of water with straws.

Through July 6, JetBlue will block middle seats on larger aircraft and aisle seats on smaller planes. Families are still permitted to sit together on all flights. JetBlue boasts the “most space between each row of seats of any U.S. airline.” Additionally, food has been greatly limited and water is served in single-use cups instead of traditional glassware.

United Airlines is providing hand sanitizer wipes upon boarding; it also rolled out a special “all-in-one” snack bag that includes a wrapped sanitizer wipe, 8.5-ounce bottled water, Dutch stroopwafel and package of pretzels. This airline is also one of the only ones to explicitly enforce a 6-foot social distancing rule at counters.

On international flights with Delta Air Lines, amenity kits will be provided which contain a hand cleanser and towelette. Meanwhile, the plane interior is said to be cleaned after each flight by sanitation crews. Delta’s website indicates that onboard blankets will still be available and will be washed after each flight.

Frontier Airlines is taking several steps to make passengers feel safe. The airline is enforcing the use of face coverings on flights. And before passengers even step foot in an airport, they will go through an online check-in process, which requires customers to confirm they have no symptoms of COVID-19 and have not been around anyone presenting such symptoms in the past 14 days. Also listed here is a passenger commitment to washing or sanitizing their hands before boarding.

Should airports institute temperature checks?

Jake Filene, senior vice president of customers told TODAY by phone that Frontier is the only airline in the U.S. to use temperature screenings for every customer and crew member alike. If any passenger has a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, Frontier will not let the individual board and will instead assist in rebooking a flight.

It’s an effort that Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly called on the Transportation Security Administration to take on last month. But the effectiveness of thermal screenings has been contested by CDC scientists, particularly since COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, doesn’t always cause a fever and in fact, produces no symptoms at all in some people.

Adalja of Johns Hopkins also pointed out that someone can take Tylenol or ibuprofen to suppress it. Instead, he proposed that airlines provide customers with a list of common symptoms, including aches and pains, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cough.

What is the TSA doing?

For its part, the TSA unveiled its updated security procedures ahead of the summer season — measures it has already started to implement, with more to be rolled out nationwide by mid-June. The agency will now allow travelers to bring one 12-ounce container of hand sanitizer in carry-on bags, up from the normal 3.4 ounces. Passengers will also scan their own electronic or digital boarding passes.

And if you're planning to bring food onboard (since many meal service options have been canceled), the TSA is now asking people to place those items in a clear plastic bag and put them in a bin before X-ray screenings. This will allow TSA workers to maintain social distancing and prevent them from touching passengers' food. TSA Precheck members will not need to remove items from their bags.

Passengers will likely notice other changes, including limited security lane usage and TSA agents changing gloves after each pat-down. And because many people have been unable to renew their driver's licenses, the TSA is accepting licenses that expired on or after March 1, 2020.

Will circulating air in a plane make me sick?

As with American, Southwest and Delta, among others, Frontier’s airplanes have been equipped with hospital-grade high-efficiency particulate air filters, which filter out 99.9% of dust particles, bacteria and viruses. Filene said that every three minutes, air on any given aircraft is fully exchanged.

And while this may sound like an excellent solution, Adalja said air circulation on planes is a fairly common misperception.

“When you see an outbreak on an airplane, it’s not that everyone breathing the air gets infected with it. It’s the people that are in the seat beside you and the seat in front of you. That’s what it is. If this was an air problem, you would see much wider outbreaks on a plane. And this is a droplet-spread virus (where) the droplets travel about 6 feet or so and fall to the ground.”

In fact, airplane ventilation system requirements meet CDC-recommended levels for use with COVID-19 patients in airborne infection isolation rooms, wrote Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.

When asked if he would take a flight these days, Adalja responded, “I would go without any hesitation.” However, he was quick to note that in caring for patients with COVID-19 daily, going on a plane would be less of a personal risk for him.

The New York Times recently surveyed epidemiologists on activities they would consider doing during the coronavirus era. Out of 511 participants, 20% said they would travel by plane this summer; 44% would do so in three months to one year; 37% would fly in over a year and less than 1% said they would never fly again.

“No one is going to find 100% percent safety with any activity that they do until there’s a vaccine,” Adalja said. “But I do think that there have been measures put in place in airports all around the country as well as on planes that really limit the risk as much as you can and still operate.”