Travelers are pouring back into California airports this summer as COVID-19 numbers trend downward and the number of vaccinated Americans increases.
Starting with Memorial Day Weekend and on multiple dates in June, officials reported "highest single travel days" since the pandemic began at California's major airports. Compared to the same dates last summer, every Golden State airport has seen a significant jump in passenger numbers.
"We've been hitting very high marks for passenger activity, especially ever since the summer season began," says Doug Yakel, public information officer at San Francisco International Airport.
"We've had several record-setting days compared to 2020. 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.
"According to TSA and the CDC, all travelers must wear face masks inside the terminals of all U.S. airports and onboard all aircraft,” Yakel says. “That's a federal mandate that will be in place at least until September 13."
"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."
"Each day is getting better,” she notes. “We look at the numbers on a week-by-week basis. We're still below 2019 numbers, but they are definitely trending upward."
Travelers who haven't entered a U.S. airport since COVID shutdowns began in March 2020 will find that terminals look somewhat different. In the past 15 months, 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," Unvert says. "We have signage on the floors for physical distancing. We have protective shields at TSA and the concessions. We're cleaning and sanitizing regularly."
Yakel says that SFO has also modified its public areas to help passengers stay healthy when traveling: "We've reconfigured a lot of areas where queueing would occur to create more space for social distancing. We've installed about 15,000 social distancing markers on the ground in places like ticket counters and security checkpoints to help people maintain distance from each other.
"We've also installed several hundred clear plastic barriers in places where passengers might have a face-to-face interaction, like at an information booth or security checkpoint," he says. "And of course, we've greatly increased the number of hand-sanitizing stations."
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. In June, Alaska Airlines added daily nonstop service from Santa Rosa's Charles M. Schultz Sonoma County Airport to Hollywood Burbank Airport, and in September it will add 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.
A newcomer in the skies, Avelo Airlines debuted service from Hollywood Burbank Airport in April. They're flying to the California cities of Redding and Arcata/Eureka plus nine other cities across the United States.
In October, Southwest Airlines will add two daily nonstops from Sacramento to Palm Springs Airport, and Alaska Airlines will add a nonstop flight from San Jose to Palm Springs. Travelers headed to Yosemite or Sequoia and Kings Canyon this summer 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."