Travelers are pouring back into California airports as COVID-19 numbers continue to trend downward and the number of vaccinated Americans increases.
"We've had several record-setting days compared to 2020,” says Doug Yakel, public information officer at San Francisco International Airport. “We're still at about 50 percent of our pre-pandemic numbers, but the numbers are trending in the right direction. It's good to see—it looks like an airport again around here."
Yakel adds that "all airport lounges, restaurants, and facilities have been open for many months now, so essentially it's business as usual for SFO, but with more people traveling."
“Business as usual” means that when people enter any U.S. airport or board a plane, they still need to wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth.
"It doesn't matter what any state or local government is doing. Every time local and state governments revise or eliminate their COVID restrictions, we reiterate the message that people still need masks for travel."
Travelers who haven't entered a U.S. airport since COVID shutdowns began will find that terminals look somewhat different. Since the beginning of the pandemic, officials have reconfigured airports to better protect the health and safety of both travelers and employees.
"At John Wayne Airport, we have signage everywhere encouraging people to wear their masks, stay physically distant, and wash their hands," says John Wayne Airport communications manager Marisa Unvert. "We have signage on the floors for physical distancing. We have protective shields at TSA and the concessions. We're cleaning and sanitizing regularly."
Not all of the airports' protective measures are readily visible. At Sacramento International Airport, for example, the amount of fresh air circulating in buildings has increased from 10 percent to 100 percent. Los Angeles International Airport has employed advanced ultraviolet light technology to better clean the air in terminals.
As travelers take to the skies in increasing numbers, airlines are launching new routes at cities across California. Alaska Airlines has added daily nonstop service from Santa Rosa's Charles M. Schultz Sonoma County Airport to Hollywood Burbank Airport, as well as routes from Santa Rosa to Orange County and San Diego. Alaska Airlines also offers nonstop flights from Santa Barbara Airport to San Diego and Oakland.
Southwest Airlines added two daily nonstops from Sacramento to Palm Springs Airport, and Alaska Airlines now offers a nonstop flight from San Jose to Palm Springs. Travelers headed to Yosemite or Sequoia and Kings Canyon can take advantage of Fresno Yosemite International Airport with nonstop flights to and from San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Even with this abundance of added flights and airports' upgraded health-and-safety measures, some travelers may still feel a bit anxious waiting in a terminal or boarding their first flight since pre-pandemic times. John Wayne Airport has implemented a soothing cure: Through its AirPAWS program, volunteers from Orange County Animal Allies bring trained therapy dogs—golden retrievers, Labradors, poodles, pugs, and more—to stroll through the terminal. The furry, four-legged ambassadors hang out at airline waiting areas—leashed to their handlers, of course—and do their tail-wagging best to make travelers smile.
The canine ambassador program is popular with kids and people of all ages, Unvert says. Travelers can pet or take selfies with the animals, or just enjoy a dog-friendly chat with their handlers. "They're highly trained therapy dogs, and they're very docile and sweet. They just walk around and greet passengers, and they have a calming effect on people."