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.

Don’t want to fly? Links to cancel/change policies of U.S. airlines

The coronavirus outbreak is wreaking havoc worldwide with health, business and travel.

The health part is head-spinning, as more people are being diagnosed with the virus and the reported death toll is rising.

If you’re not sick and need to travel somewhere for work, to be with family or for a long-planned vacation, you may out of luck.

Airlines worldwide are announcing what they say are temporary reductions in flight schedules.

And for those who decide they don’t want to fly, airlines are offering refunds and offering to waive the fees on changes and cancelations.

With conditions. Of course.

Here are links to the some of the current policies of major U.S. airlines.

We gathered this information on March 10 and the applicable dates and offers are likely to shift over the next days and weeks.

Be sure to read the details on the airline website closely and check back if your flight situation isn’t yet covered.

Alaska Airlines – The Seattle-based airline is offering no change or cancellation fees on travel through March 31, 2010, regardless of the date the ticket was purchased. And no change or cancellation fees on new tickets purchased between February 27, 2020 and March 31, 2020.

American Airlines – The airline is offering to waive change fees for tickets purchased before March 1 for travel through April 30.

Delta Air Lines – Delta is waiving change fees for travelers with tickets to both international and domestic destinations through April 30 if the ticket was issued on or before March 9, as well as for tickets purchased from March 1- March 30.

Frontier – No change/cancel fees will be charged for changes to tickets issued before March 10, 2020 for travel between March 10 and April 30, 2020 or for tickets purchased March 10 through March 31, 2020. Contact Frontier at 801-401-9000.

JetBlue – JetBlue is waiving change and cancel fees for customers traveling March 10, 2020 through April 30, 2020. Change and cancel fees are also suspended for new flight bookings made through March 31, 2020 for travel through September 8, 2020.

Southwest Airlines – The airline does not charge change or cancelation fees. If you cancel at least 10 minutes before your scheduled departure, you can apply the full amount of your ticket to future travel.

Spirit Airlines – The airline is allowing travelers to make a free one-time change to their ticket (fare difference will apply) and if offering refund credit to be used for a booking made within six months.

United Airlines – The airline is waiving change fees for all domestic or international tickets purchased on or before March 2 for travel dates through April 30. New tickets purchased through March 31, 2020 can be changed for free during the next 12 months.

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.” 

Airlines reassure us that planes are clean and germ-free.

All the news about coronavirus is pretty scary for air passengers who worry about getting sick from the germs on a plane.

Even before this scare, some travelers used disinfectant wipes to clean their tray tables and armrests before and during a flight.

Now we’re being told that this is something everyone should do.

Airlines are doing their part to try to reassure travelers that airplanes are clean and cleaned regularly between flights.

On Wednesday, for example, American Airlines shared a statement outlining its aircraft cleaning routines and efforts to upgrade cleaning.

American says international flights and aircraft with additional time on the ground receive a detailed 30-point cleaning package each day. The airline says all aircraft also undergo deep cleaning procedures on a regularly scheduled basis.

Now, American says it is 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,” American said in its statement.

On its blog, Alaska Airlines shared a video explaining how its airplanes get cleaned.

The airline notes that its crews are paying extra attention to sanitizing the ‘high touch’ parts of that plane. That includes armrests, seat belts, tray tables, overhead controls for air vents, light buttons and call buttons, and the interior and exterior handles to lavatories.

Take a look and let us know if this makes you feel better about flying right now.