COVID-19 dogs

The next steps in the new normal for air travel

First: an invite

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Airports, airlines offer COVID testing, TSA appointments, more

Here is a slightly different version of our story that first appeared on USA TODAY

With Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, United, and other airlines announcing fare sales and new routes for winter, it may feel like air travel is returning to normal.

But after a spike over the Labor Day holiday, the numbers of travelers passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints are still way down compared to this time last year.

Throughout the summer, airports were scrambling to enhance cleaning regimes and install hand-sanitizing stations, plexiglass barriers and other health-focused tools. Now airports are adopting new strategies to keep passengers safe and instill confidence in travel.

Here are some of the programs you may encounter:

Security checkpoint by appointment

This month, Denver International Airport (DEN) debuted the free, app-powered VeriFLY program, which blends a checkpoint reservation system with a health check. Passengers download the VeriFLY app (an Android version is on the way) and complete a health survey 24 hours before their flight. At the airport, participants get a touchless temperature check before accessing a dedicated TSA lane.

More robots and robot-like helpers

Airport employees serving as Travel Well Ambassadors at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) roam the terminals reminding passengers to wear their masks. Softbank Robotics’ direction-giving robot, Pepper, has been reprogrammed to serve as a mask nanny as well.

Robots roam airports reminding passengers to put their masks on.

Intelligent sterilizing robots and disinfecting robotic machinery are on duty at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT)Hong Kong International Airport, and at San Antonio International Airport (SAT).

Cleaning up with UV light and a spritz

You can’t see it, but some airports have air-cleansing bipolar ionization (BPI) devices installed in the heating and air conditioning systems. And an increasing number of airports are using UV and medical-grade UVC light to zap bacteria and viruses on surfaces and, in some cases, people.

London’s Gatwick Airport is installing a Smiths Detection-made system at eight security checkpoint lanes that will send security bins through a tunnel that uses short-wavelength UV-C light for disinfection. 

Bluewater Technologies, a design technology firm in Michigan, has a system that uses medical-grade, UV-C light to quickly sanitize airport luggage carts in a few seconds.

And Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) has installed UV-C sterilization units inside some escalator and walkway mechanisms to continuously clean the handrails.

The Toronto Airport also has a new, voluntary disinfection corridor that uses a chemical-free spray to give passengers a quick pre- or post-flight sanitizing spritz.

COVID-19 testing at airports

Temperature checks may become the norm, though there continues to be debate over who should be responsible for carrying them out. Earlier this month, a new bipartisan Senate bill was introduced that would require the TSA to perform that task.

Now, all eyes are on COVID-19 testing at airports.

On Sept. 22, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), joined trade groups such as Airlines for America (A4A), Airport Council International (ACI) World, and Airports Council International-North America in calling for the systematic testing of all international travelers before their flights.

“This should enable governments to safely open borders without quarantine. And it will provide passengers with the certainty that they can travel without having to worry about a last-minute change in government rules that could spoil their plans,” said IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac in a statement.

Where to get tested before you fly.

Last week, United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines announced their own COVID-19 testing pilot programs. United will test its system on passengers flying from San Francisco to Hawaii. Hawaiian Airlines is setting up drive-through sites near LAX and SFO. Both will launch on or close to Oct. 15, when Hawaii begins allowing out-of-state visitors to bypass quarantine with a negative test result.

XpresSpa, which has temporarily closed its network of in-airport spas, is developing a network of COVID-19 testing centers at airports. So far they have test sites at JFK International Airport and at Newark Liberty International Airport.

The medical clinic at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) offers travelers COVID-19 tests by appointment, with results typically returned within 24 to 72 hours. YVR and Canadian airline WestJet are also creating a pilot program to offer voluntary preflight COVID-19 testing with fast results to passengers boarding domestic flights, according to the CBC.

And through mid-October, Italian airline Alitalia is operating two of its seven daily Rome-Milan flights as “COVID-Tested.” For these flights, only passengers who have tested negative for COVID-19 allowed on the plane. Passengers who arrive at the airport without a certificate proving they have tested negative for the virus 72 hours before boarding can take a fast, free COVID-19 test at the airport.

COVID-19-sniffing dogs

Sniffer dogs named Kossi, left and Miina react with trainer Susanna Paavilainen at the Helsinki airport in Vantaa, Finland, Sept. 22, 2020. The dogs have been trained to detect the coronavirus from arriving passenger samples at the airport.

And passengers flying out of Finland’s Helsinki-Vantaa Airport or Dubai International Airport might also encounter COVID-sniffing dogs.

Look for the seal of approval

Airports Council International (ACI) World recently rolled out a global Airport Health Accreditation program designed to restore public confidence in air travel. The program should also prove to governments that airports are following international health and safety standards.

The voluntary health and hygiene program requires airports to answer questions relating to everything from cleaning and disinfection to physical distancing, staff protection, passenger communications, and facilities.

Airports seeking the Airport Health Accreditation must also provide pictures, videos, and explanations to show how they are following international protocols.

In mid-August, Istanbul Airport became the first airport in the world to be accredited through the program. In early September, Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) was the first airport in North America to receive the designation.

Now other airports are rushing to get the ACI seal of approval.

ACI launched the Airport Health Accreditation in late July with a goal of reaching about 100 or 150 airports, ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira told USA TODAY. But so far more than 300 airports have expressed interest,146 contracts have been signed, 46 airports are accredited and 50 to 60 more requests are arriving each week.

Contributing: Associated Press

Airports and Airlines offer COVID-19 Tests

 Organizations representing airports and airlines, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), are calling for rapid COVID-19 testing for passengers at airports as an alternative to quarantine measures or bans on international travel.

“The key to restoring the freedom of mobility across borders is systematic COVID-19 testing of all travelers before departure, said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “This will give governments the confidence to open their borders without complicated risk models that see constant changes in the rules imposed on travel,” he adds.

Most groups are calling for some sort of government agency or coordination for this tests. But in the meantime, airports and airlines are coming up with testing programs on their own.

United Airlines’ offering COVID-19 tests for Hawaii-bound passengers. Brace for the fee.

Starting October 15, customers traveling on United Airlines flights from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Hawaii will be able to take either a rapid COVID-19 test at the airport or a self-administered mail-in test at home.

This pilot program is timely and welcome because both residents and visitors arriving from out-of-state to Hawaii are still subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine. But starting October 15, arriving travelers will be exempt from the quarantine if they have written confirmation of a negative test result secured within 72 hours from their final leg of their departure.

How will the tests work and what will they cost?

The test at SFO airport will be a rapid Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 test administered by GoHealth Urgent Care and partner Dignity Health. Passengers can make an appointment at the testing site in the international terminal on the day of their flight. Testing site hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

The cost is $250. Certainly not cheap. But results should be available in about 15 minutes.

The mail-in test option is less expensive – $80, plus shipping. Still not cheap. This test is offered by a company named Color. They recommend customers order the test kit at least 10 days before their trip so they can send in a sample at least 72 hours before they fly. Results are delivered via email or text.

COVID-19 Testing by Dog

Meanwhile, Finland’s Helsinki Airport now has a team of specially-trained dogs on duty whose job it is to sniff out passengers who may be infected with COVID-19.

Tests conducted by University of Helsinki find that dogs can smell the COVID-19 virus with almost 100% certainty, according to a statement from the airport. The trained dogs can also identify the virus days before the symptoms have even started and from a much smaller sample than tests used by other methods.

“The difference is massive, as a dog only needs 10-100 molecules to identify the virus, whereas test equipment requires 18,000,000.”