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What You Need to Know About California Airports

As travelers once again traverse the Golden State by plane, understanding the new rules and planning ahead will be essential

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The onset of COVID-19 resulted in a massive slowdown in air travel: The number of flights in and out of California airports plunged by as much as 97 percent during the early stages of the pandemic. With the state now reopening and more and more travelers returning to the friendly skies, passengers should anticipate an entirely new—and an entirely safer—airport experience.

Understanding your airline’s rules and regulations is an essential first step prior to travel. That said, the hiatus has given officials throughout the state, from major hubs like Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to smaller facilities like Palm Springs International Airport (PSP), a valuable opportunity to reexamine operations and infrastructure. Airports have now developed detailed plans to better protect the health and safety of both travelers and employees.

“To say that the effects of COVID-19 have been challenging in the airport setting is almost an understatement. We are in unprecedented times, but we are all in it together,” says Kimberly Becker, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. “The health and well-being of all who travel through San Diego International Airport (SAN) is paramount.

“In alignment with the County of San Diego and the Centers for Disease Control,” Becker notes, “SAN has implemented a number of health and safety measures throughout the terminal and is working on educating passengers on how they can be well prepared for their trip through the airport. We want passengers to know that when they are ready to fly again, we are ready to serve them." 

Safety and Social Distancing

Because people often remain in airports for an extended period of time, social distancing is critical. In San Diego, airport officials have come up with a locally inspired way to keep travelers appropriately distanced. Decals shaped like surfboards read “Social Distancing San Diego Style/One Surfboard Apart” and are spaced at proper increments along the floor at check-in lines and other congested locations. Signs placed on chairs in boarding areas tell fliers to leave seats open with the reminder “More space to CHILL.” You can’t get more San Diego than that.

Throughout California, whether you use John Wayne Airport, Orange County (SNA) or Sacramento International Airport (SMF), you’ll probably notice a host of health and safety innovations.

Airports have implemented new cleaning protocols in which high-touch areas are cleaned using bacteria- and virus-killing products with much greater frequency. To help travelers keep their hands clean, numerous hand sanitizer stations have been installed in terminals (and under new regulations, you can now carry a 12-ounce container of sanitizer onto flights). The Transportation Security Administration is also washing bins at an increased rate, and plexiglass barriers at concessions and ticketing desks will also provide an additional layer of protection. Contactless flight check-in systems also stand to minimize the risk of spreading the virus.

Reinventing Air Travel

Not all of the protective measures are readily visible. In Sacramento, for example, the amount of fresh air circulating in buildings has increased from 10 percent to 100 percent, while LAX has employed advanced UV technology to better clean the air in terminals.

“The philosophical view that runs across the industry is that we need to reinvent the air travel experience in order to ensure that travelers are confident and comfortable with flying again,” says Doug Yakel, public information officer at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). “Even once restrictions are lifted, there will probably be barriers, psychological barriers, to traveling. We saw it with the SARS outbreak in 2003. It just takes people time to get comfortable enough to start flying.”

Yakel says that while airlines are limited in what they can do inside jets, airports have sufficient real estate to reimagine the terminal experience. Security checkpoints have long been one of the most congested spaces, especially as lines snake and double-back against themselves, thus putting travelers in close proximity to one another. SFO has reconfigured those serpentine queues to increase distance by using built-in barriers. And in anticipation of the eventual resumption of higher passenger volumes, the airport has also developed a system to control crowding in restrooms.

“We’re also going to have to look at the use of technology as a way to reduce queues,” says Yakel. “One of the things we’re thinking about is to create virtual queueing at places like checkpoints. A process that maybe when you enter the building, you register your presence and then are given a time to enter the security checkpoint. It allows for an even metering of passengers into a checkpoint so that there’s minimal queuing.”

If you haven’t traveled recently, be prepared for changes at California airports. Most airline lounges remain closed and while the situation continues to evolve, you’ll probably notice that fewer restaurants and shops are operating, though you can still find necessities and food. Dine-in options are limited but restaurants have take-out options; if you have specific dietary needs, it would be best to bring what you need from home rather than rely on what you might find at the airport.

As California airports ramp up, travelers can do their part to be part of the solution. Everyone must wear facial coverings, and if you’re experiencing such symptoms as a fever or severe cough, please stay at home. Because airline schedules are fluctuating with greater frequency than before, check on the status of your flight to avoid unnecessary trips to the airport or to limit time in terminals. Airport configurations may also have changed, including the closure of some security checkpoints, so arrive at the airport two hours early for domestic flights to leave yourself enough time.

Finally, you can decrease your interactions by downloading airline apps and keeping your boarding pass on your phone. And if you can limit luggage to carry-ons, that will eliminate time and crowding at baggage claim.

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