Airlines

Fewer flights, but TSA + airports still fighting germs

Pretty much every airline is spooling out schedule cuts in response to reduced passenger demand, concerns about coronavirus and government-imposed restriction.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Etihad, Norwegian and Singapore Airlines are just a few carriers that have made serious schedule adjustments in the past few days.

Fewer planes will be in the skies, but airports remain open.

And the Transportation Security Administration, which recently confirmed that three of its officers at Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, is finally getting into gear with security checkpoint-specific advice for travelers.

TSA is reminding travelers that it is OK to bring individually packaged alcohol or anti-bacterial wipes in carry-on or checked luggage. Jumbo containers of hand wipes are also allowed in carry-on or checked luggage, says TSA, as are liquid hand sanitizers.

For safety reasons, savvy travelers already know to put personal stuff such as wallets, keys, phones, loose change, etc., inside their carry-ons and not loose in the bins going through the x-ray machines.

But those bins don’t get cleaned very often – if at all – and are full of germs.

So, TSA is reminding travelers to keep their personal items from touching the bins and to wash their hands as soon as possible after going through the screening process.

Airports are continuing their efforts to stay extra clean as well.

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.” 

Miniature houses have big role in KLM history

Well-known airlines such as Pan Am, TWA, US Airways and Virgin America are long gone. And in just the past two years more than two dozen other airlines went from soaring to shuttered.

So, it is noteworthy that KLM Royal Dutch Airlines turned 100 on October 7.

The Dutch flag carrier is not only one of the world’s oldest airlines, it is also the oldest airline still flying under its original name.

It’s also the only airline where the guest of honor at its annual birthday party is the newest version of the three-inch tall porcelain house gifted to business class passengers flying on the carrier’s intercontinental routes.

The history of the houses

Back in 1952, KLM began giving its first-class passengers a gift of a miniature Delft Blue pottery house portraying a historically or architecturally significant Dutch building.

Because there were rules and limits regarding the value of gifts to passengers, the airline filled the houses with gin so that they were technically not gifts but free cocktails that just happened to be served in souvenir containers.  

New editions of the souvenir houses were created on and off for many years until 1994 – KLM’s 75th Anniversary – when the airline commissioned a bonus catch-up batch of miniature houses so that the number of souvenir houses in the series lined up with airline’s age.

Now one of the airline industry’s most sought-after complimentary inflight amenity, a new miniature Delft Blue porcelain houses filled with Bols Genever, a popular Dutch gin, is unveiled at the carrier’s birthday party each October 7. The new house is cycled into the assortment of miniature houses business class passengers can choose from on each flight.

A handy app helps passengers and collectors track the KLM houses they have, or still need. Swapping is popular and there’s a robust secondhand market in Amsterdam shops and online, with prices ranging from about $15 for the common houses to upwards of $550 for some of the rarer editions.  

Over the years, KLM’s miniature houses have depicted everything from the home of Dutch exotic dancer and spy Mata Hari to the Anne Frank House and the Rembrandt House.

In 2014, KLM’s miniature house portrayed the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam.

Hotel New York in Rotterdam

Rotterdam’s Hotel New York, in the former headquarters of the Holland America line, was the featured house in 2016. And the home in Haarlem where Dutch aviation pioneer and aircraft manufacturer Anthony Fokker once lived was honored with a miniature gin-filled house in 2017.

KLM Delft miniature house #98 depicted the home of Dutch aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker in Haarlem

KLM’s 100th anniversary house

KLM’s much-anticipated 100th Delftware miniature building was revealed at the carrier’s 100th birthday party, held in a hangar at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on October 7.

The event was attended by more the 3500 people, some of whom had flown in just to be among the first to get their hands on the newest miniature house.

Courtesy KLM

The 100th house is a replica of Huis ten Bosch Palace in The Hague, the current home of the Netherland’s King Willem-Alexander and his family.

The palace was built in the mid-17th century for Prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange and his wife Amalia van Solms and was chosen to be KLM’s 100th miniature house to honor the strong ties between the Dutch Royal Family and KLM since the airline’s early days.

The future of the KLM houses

While KLM’s Delftware miniatures are highly collectible and closely tied to the carrier’s branding, KLM is also committed to making aviation more sustainable.

To that end, the carrier uses electric baggage towing tractors, purchases carbon offsets, operates many flights using a biofuel mix and works to reduce waste and weight on flights.

But ditching the miniature porcelain houses to lighten loads has not been considered.

“There are things you should do and things which you shouldn’t do. Period,” said KLM’s President and CEO Pieter Elbers, “For sustainability, we are investing in lightweight containers, trolleys, cargo nets, bottles, glasses and many other things to reduce weight on our planes,” said Elbers, “But those houses, we won’t touch.”

(My story about KLM’s 100th Delft miniature house first appeared on CNBC.)

KLM turns 100 on Oct 7

KLM, Royal Dutch Airways, turns 100 on October 7 and celebrations marking the milestone event are already underway.

A great exhibit drawing from KLM’s extensive collection of more the 250,000 images has been on view at the Amsterdam City Archives.

And on October 7, a hoopla event will take place in a KLM hangar at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. During that party, the much-awaited ‘reveal’ of the 100th tiny Delft house filled with Bols Genever (a Dutch gin) will take place.

The small houses are a given out as complimentary gifts to travelers flying World Business Class and there’s always a wave of excitement in the cabin when the cart with the houses start being rolled down the aisle.

Stuck at the Airport will on hand for this year’s big reveal and we’ll share details on that as soon as we’re able.

Stuck at The Airport was honored to be on site for the reveal of KLM’s 97th miniature Delft House, which was made in the likeness of the Hotel New York in Rotterdam.

The hotel is on the site of the former headquarters of the Holland American Line and for many years, beginning in 1872, the company’s ships sailed between Rotterdam and New York and several other U.S. cities.

Stuck at the Airport was also onsite for the reveal of KLM’s miniature Delft house #98 – which depicts the family home of aviation pioneer Antony Fokker.

In advance of its birthday, KLM has been busy with events, promotions and announcements celebrating the company’s past – and looking to the future.

Take a look at these two short videos, especially the “Fly Responsibly” video that actually encourages travelers not to fly.