Hand sanitizer challenge at KCI Airport

Air travel may be grinding to a halt, but airports are doing their best to keep facilities clean and safe for those who must still get on a plane.

That’s why this message from Kansas City International Airport (KCI) shared on Sunday afternoon is so disturbing.

KCI reports that over the weekend several hand sanitizer dispensers were ripped off the walls in airport restrooms.

As you may imagine, wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispensers are in high demand right now and are sold out almost everywhere.

“We are not able to purchase any more for months,” KCI Airport explains on its Facebook page.

KCI says it’s doing all it can to protect the health of its customers, “but this act makes that difficult.”

Right now the airport can only get hand sanitizer in dispenser bags. And if it transfers that hand sanitizer into bottles, the airport knows it’s likely those bottles would disappear too.

Airport officials say they’re reviewing the surveillance footage outside the restrooms. But for not, KCI reminds travelers that it has “plenty of soap and paper towel dispensers intact, and there are still hand sanitizer dispensers in most restrooms.”

Earlier this month, in a note outlining its efforts to address COVID-19, Kansas City Aviation said its custodial team had stepped up cleaning and disinfecting efforts in restrooms and public areas.

“Throughout the day, they are checking and refilling soap, paper towel and hand sanitizer dispensers,” KCI officials said. “Airlines, concessionaires and other tenants have increased cleaning efforts in their areas, including post-security. Flyers are posted in restrooms, a Health Department educational video is running on flight information displays and CNN Airport Channel is running a video on its monitors.”

What now? A new week of coronavirus travel alerts

News related to the spread of coronavirus and its impact on travel seems to be coming faster than we can keep up with it.

On Sunday, the U.S. State Department issued a notice urging U.S. citizens not to travel by cruise ship.  

The CDC is also discouraging older adults and anyone with underlying health issues from taking long plane trips and spending time in crowded places.

Airports would count as crowded places. Although with so many flights canceled and so many travelers staying home, airports are far less crowded than usual.

But for those who are traveling, airports and airlines are continuing to scrub facilities and share information about what they’re doing to keep passengers safe.

Here are just a few messages from the past few days.

Tips for staying healthy while flying in the age of coronavirus

Sharing this story I wrote for CNBC with tips for what to do if you’re flying soon.

The spread of coronavirus and cutbacks in domestic and international airline schedules continue to raise concerns and insecurities for those with travel plans for the next few weeks and months.

If your airline cancels your flight, your employer restricts business travel or an organization cancels its scheduled conference or event, your decision about whether to go or stay home will be made for you

But if you’re in the wait-and-see mode or decide to pack your bags and go, here’s what medical experts say about avoiding germs while flying.

Before you fly

During normal times, airports and airplanes are germ-ridden places.

So, experts say now is the time to pay extra attention to the health and hygiene rules you likely practice anyway, such as washing your hands often and packing items like hand sanitizer, tissues and extra supplies of medications. You may also want to make copies of your health insurance paperwork before flying.

Travelers hitting the road in the next few days, weeks or months should double-check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for up-to-date information about travel advisories and risk assessment by country and think through contingency plans before leaving home.

“Have someone available in case you need help with emergency travel plans or need to get home quickly,” said Jonathan Fielding, professor of public health and pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles and chair of the U.S. Task Force on Community Preventive Services, established by the Department of Health and Human Services. 

But keep in mind that as the virus spreads “you never know when a city you’re in or about to travel to is going to be sealed off, flights canceled, or travelers quarantined,” he said.

At the airport

At airports, germs can linger on the screens at self-service check-in kiosks, on the bins and belts at security checkpoints, on escalator handrails, food court tables, in restrooms and gate seating areas.

Generally, to avoid germs at the security checkpoint, you should never walk barefoot through the metal detector, said Charles Gerba, a microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona. Place your shoes on the belt, not in a bin. Put whatever you can, including your jacket, your phone and the contents of your pockets, into your carry-on instead of into a bin. And take a moment to use hand sanitizer in the post-security repacking area before rushing off to the food court or your gate.

Airports across the country say they are increasing the frequency of cleaning routines and the intensity of cleaning products at “high touch” areas in shuttle buses, washrooms, security checkpoints, food courts and other areas, adding hand sanitizer stations and taking other actions to keep passengers and employees healthy.

Denver International Airport is installing sanitary wipes in jet bridges to allow passengers to sanitize their seats on planes. And in a list of new protocols at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials say more than 100 new hand sanitizers have been installed throughout the airport, with 100 more to be installed soon. Cleaning frequencies at high touch points have been increased and contractors are being equipped with hospital-grade disinfectant and wipes for faster response and cleaning. 

But passengers should still take extra precautions. “Our studies have found that viruses can spread very rapidly via the hands because of the large number of surfaces that you touch,” Gerba said. He advocates washing your hands often, using hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol and using disinfecting wipes on hard surfaces in airports.

And before your flight, “wait in the least crowded areas of the airport and try to stay at least six feet away from anyone else,” said UCLA’s Fielding, “And try to board the plane last, after the line has thinned, so you’re not stuck waiting in a tight space with lots of other people as they board.”

Avoiding germs on the plane

While many airlines are canceling flights and temporarily reducing schedules on some routes in response to COVID-19, they are also sharing details about increased cleaning routines and adjusted in-flight service routines on aircraft still flying.

On Wednesday, for example, American Airlines said it was enhancing cleaning procedures on international flights and aircraft that remain overnight at airports. “This move, which will touch the majority of our aircraft each day, includes a more thorough cleaning of all hard surfaces, including tray tables and armrests,” the airline said in a statement.

On its blog, Alaska Airlines shared a video explaining how its airplanes get cleaned and noted that its crews are paying extra attention to sanitizing armrests, seat belts, tray tables, overhead controls for air vents, light buttons and call buttons, and the interior and exterior handles to lavatories.

Despite the airlines’ efforts, “I advise people to bring their own germicidal wipes to rub down the high touch surfaces, the armrest, meal tray and the button that makes your seat go back,” said Paul Pottinger, infectious disease specialist at UW Medicine, the health-care system at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It’s also mighty neighborly to offer one of those wipes to the person you’re sitting next to.”

Pottinger doesn’t recommend the use of face masks for healthy travelers because he says there is very little evidence to support their effectiveness at keeping away respiratory viruses.

“If people like to use them though, that’s OK, but I worry that they are so uncomfortable that a traveler may end up fiddling with the mask and actually increase the risk of getting sick by forcing them to touch their face, nose and mouth,” he said.

And when it comes to the overhead air vent, the consensus is that having it blow air toward you is better than using it to blow air away.

“The air in the plane blower has been filtrated, which can remove more than 99% of dust and microbes in the air,” said Fielding of UCLA. “By having the vent blow on you, you create an invisible air barrier around you that creates turbulence – simultaneously blocking any droplets that may have viruses within them and forcing them down to the ground.” 

How are airports & the TSA dealing with COVID-19 fears?

All the head-spinning news about the Coronavirus (COVID-19), may have you wondering what to do if, like us, you have plane tickets and travel plans booked for the next few days, weeks or months.

If your airline cancels your flight or your organization cancels its event, your decision about whether to go or stay home may be decided for you. Then, getting refunds, credit for future travel or an itinerary for a different destination may be what keeps you busy.

If you’re in the wait-and-see mode and decide to pack your bags and go, here’s what some airports and the TSA are doing to help you – and their employees – stay safe.

Airport security checkpoints

During normal travel times, airport security checkpoints are germy places and now is certainly not the time to walk barefoot through the metal detectors or put your shoes in the bin on top of your coat.

To avoid germs – and leaving stuff behind – we always recommend putting whatever you can, including your coat, the contents of your pockets, a purse, your lunch and anything you’re carrying, into your carry-on instead of into the bins. And put your shoes on the belt, not into a bin.

There are always bottles of hand sanitizers at the checkpoints. Now there are more. Your tax dollars pay for those, so don’t be shy about really cleaning up in the recombobulation area post-security.

A TSA spokesperson says the nitrile gloves officers usually wear when patting you down or looking through your stuff adds a layer of protection against germs and that, for now, TSA has authorized personnel who come into close contact with travelers to wear surgical masks – if they want.

Fighting germs in airports

In general, airports across the country say they are increasing the frequency and intensity of cleaning efforts in washrooms and other areas.

Airports are also encouraging passengers to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s advice on washing hands, covering coughs and otherwise trying to prevent the spread of germs by staying home if not well. 

And airport officials say they’re monitoring the impacts of the coronavirus and working closely with local and federal partners and airlines to reduce the risk to passengers.

Denver International Airport (DEN) is adding sanitary wipe stations in jet bridges so passengers can sanitize their seats on planes and putting extra bottles of hand sanitizers at the security checkpoints and information booths.

DEN notes that it is one of the airports that use checkpoint screening trays with antimicrobial treatments.

As you may imagine, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) and its passengers are on high alert.  SEA is keeping its Traveler Update page very up-to-date with advice for travelers and the latest COVID-19 news.

Airport spokesman Perry Cooper said the airport is doing additional cleaning and has been increasing those efforts as the situation has progressed.

“We have reviewed and updated the type and strength of cleaners to be even more efficient,” said Cooper, “And have also added over 50 new hand sanitizer stations in the international areas as well as increasing them in the general areas of the airport.”

Coronavirus brings more bad news for travelers.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is bringing with it a lot of fast-breaking, bad news for travelers and the travel industry.

Over the weekend, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines announced the temporary suspension of flights to Milan, Italy and United Airlines announced a temporary suspension of flights to Tokyo Narita, Osaka Singapore and Seoul.

And, because travelers are holding back on buying new plane tickets, on Sunday American Airlines announced it will join JetBlue and Alaska Airlines in offering a change fee waiver on new tickets purchased in the next two weeks.

Alaska Airlines also shared some notes about the efforts it is taking to keep planes clean and passengers safe.

The airline says using wipes to clean armrests and tray tables is fine, but they’re asking passengers not to use cleaning wipes on the leather seats because commercial wipes will deteriorate the top coat of leather.

“The wipe might look dirty, ” says Alaska, “but it’s actually the leather dye color that’s coming off.”

Bad news for travelers may keep coming for a while, so it was refreshing to have Saturday Night Live do this silly bit about traveling through New York’s LaGuardia Airport.