TSA security checkpoint

Ready for the summer travel tsunami?

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News online)

Summer travel may cause some headaches

Memorial Day weekend and a unusual travel season are just around the corner.

Experts expect a summer travel tsunami fueled by a dip in Covid-19 infection rates, rising vaccination rates, and the reopening of attractions, resorts, and other tourist destinations.

AA predicts that 34 million Americans will take road trips 50 miles or more from home during the Memorial Day holiday, May 27-31. That is a 52 percent increase compared to last summer — although still about 9 percent below the pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

More than three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) plan to take trips this summer, according to the latest results of a Harris Poll survey.

But with everyone rushing to go somewhere – anywhere – travelers may find their dream destinations hard to book or sold out already.

“Travelers should be aware that there is still limited supply, as airlines haven’t brought back fleets in full, there are hotels that haven’t opened or are at limited capacity, and car rental fleets are still reduced,” said Kelly Soderlund of travel management company TripActions. She advises travelers determined to hit the road this summer to book as arly as possible to avoid being disappointed by a lack of inventory or by high prices.

Here are some of the summer travel “hiccups” travelers may encounter — and some tips for how to handle them.

High Gas Prices

AAA says motorists will be met with the highest gas prices since 2014.

Gas prices were expected to flirt with $3 per gallon leading up to Memorial Day weekend. But last week’s shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline caused prices to spike weeks ahead of the holiday.

“Americans will still take their road trips,” says AAA spokesperson Jeanette McGee, “They just may not travel as far as originally planned and may spend a little less.”

To save money on gas, make sure your car is tuned up and your tires are properly inflated, join gas station rewards programs, and download one or more gas price apps to your smartphone so you can compare prices on the road.

Crowded planes, high ticket prices

Right now, flights are 77 percent full on average, compared to 85 percent to 90 percent pre-pandemic, said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “But hidden under that topline average is the fact that popular leisure flights to places like Hawaii and Florida are regularly seeing completely full planes. With Memorial Day such a popular time to travel, expect airports to be crowded and planes filled to capacity.”

While the dirt-cheap fares airlines floated during the pandemic are long gone, there is some good news for air travelers.

“Two new budget airlines, Avelo and Breeze, will introduce more low-fare seats and increase competition,” said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research. In addition, “United Airlines just announced it is adding more domestic flights, and Southwest is adding new flights between the mainland U.S. and Hawaii.”

Long lines at security checkpoints

Passenger volumes continue to rise at airports across the country. In many airports, that means the return of long lines at security checkpoints.

“We are encouraging people to arrive at their airports early, like they were asked to do prior to the pandemic,” TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

Expect longer lines at airports where the TSA is short-staffed and unable to open all checkpoints during the busiest times. Elsewhere, lines may stretch out because passengers who have not flown in the past year have rusty packing skills. In addition to finding a lot of oversize liquid containers in travelers’ carry-on bags, TSA officers are finding that many passengers are still forgetting to leave their firearms at home.

For a refresh on what can be put in carry-on bags, travelers can consult TSA’s “Can I Bring?” feature online and on the MyTSA app or tweet to @AskTSA.

High Hotel Rates

Have your heart set on a beach vacation? So does everyone else. So this summer is an especially good time to seek out hotels in secondary or alternative cities.

For example, Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper, a price comparison site, found that while hotels in Southeastern beach destinations, such as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Galveston, Texas; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, are booking up quickly, hotels in Florida towns with similar vibes — like Jacksonville, Tampa, Fort Myers and Daytona Beach — are showing increased availability.

Elusive rental cars

During the pandemic, many car rental companies sold off big chunks of their fleets. Now, many Americans who hope to rent cars for summer road trips are finding cars unavailable or renting at a premium.

To increase your chances of finding a rental car for this summer’s vacation, Priceline and others suggest booking your car at the same time as, or even before, you book your flights, booking a travel bundle that includes a car rental, checking for cars at off-airport locations and exploring services such as Zipcar and peer-to-peer car-sharing programs.

Shifting protocols

This summer, “travelers researching a destination will need to pay attention to how that location is handling Covid protocols and what might be expected of you as a visitor to the community,” said Tori Middelstadt of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Visitors Association.

That includes noting and adhering to the rules about masking. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people can forgo wearing masks indoors and travel in the U.S. without getting tested before or after they travel.

But a federal rule not set to expire until Sept. 14 requires that masks be worn when traveling by air, rail, or bus. Cities, states, and individual businesses are still able to set their own rules.

The current unknowns of travel and the pressures around booking that first vacation in over a year understandably make many travelers anxious.

“There are just too many variables in play right now, from the basics, like availability, to the more complicated, like Covid-19 protocols. If you’re thinking about a summer trip, you need to move past the thinking part and swiftly get yourself to the booking process,” said Erika Richter of the American Society of Travel Advisors.

This airport lets you reserve your security checkpoint time

Now you can reserve your time on the TSA line at SEA Airport

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for USA TODAY)

The good news: air travel is picking up.

On Sunday May 2, TSA screened more than 1.6 million passengers, the most since March 12, 2020.

The bad news: long wait times at security checkpoints may be back coming back too.

Courtesy Port of Seattle

At times during spring break, the lines to go through the security checkpoint stretched into the food court at Orlando International Airport (MCO). At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, lines snaked across the sky bridge and into the parking garage.

TSA is in the process of hiring 6,000 new screening officers ahead of the predicted summer travel surge. And that should help move things along.

So too could a new pilot program that debuts Tuesday at SEA airport.

The program, called SEA Spot Saver, will attempt to streamline wait times by offering digital reservations, or “virtual queuing” for passengers to go through the screening process.

Here’s how it works

The program will operate daily through August 31, 2021, from 4 a.m. to noon (the airport’s peak travel period) at two checkpoints (2 and 5) and offer expedited screening to general screening passengers for free. No membership or account sign-up is required.

Expedited, non-reserved screening remains available to passengers enrolled in Trusted Traveler programs such as TSA PreCheck and CLEAR.

SEA Spot Saver will be testing two options.

Alaska Airlines passengers can sign up for a security checkpoint appointment online up to 24 hours before their scheduled departure time or once they are in the terminal.

Passengers will receive a QR code to use at checkpoint 5 at their reservation time. This option is offered by Pangiam, and powered by WhyLine and Copenhagen Optimization.

The second option, operated by VHT, is for passengers flying on Delta Air Lines and all other carriers. This option allows passengers to begin booking a checkpoint appointment time by scanning a QR code once they are in the terminal. Passengers will show their emailed reservation appointment at checkpoint 2.

Both options give passengers a 15 minute window for their appointment times. The Alaska Airlines option lets you book up to 12 passengers in a group. The Delta/other airlines option lets you book a group of up to 10.

SEA will be the only airport in the United States currently testing a “virtual queuing” system as a solution for crowded general screening lines. 

Montreal-Trudeau International Airport (YUL) has offered screening reservations since 2014 through SecureXpress, but that program is currently on hold due to the pandemic.

“The pandemic has left very few passengers coming and going through YUL,” said YUL spokeswoman Anne-Sophie Hamel via email, “As such, there is no line-up to get through security, and the service is simply not useful right now.”

From October 2020 through April 30, 2021, Denver International Airport (DEN) piloted the VeriFLY app and program. Passengers could book a timed checkpoint appointment, but they also had to file health data information before arrival and get temperature checks on site.

Port of Seattle officials say that after the pilot program is completed late this summer, they will evaluate usage, customer feedback, and line efficiency and, if successful, launch a broader program. 

“These are the innovations and ideas that we love to make our guest experiences more convenient and stress-free, especially as more people get back flying again,” said Charu Jain, Alaska’s senior vice president of merchandising and innovation. “With very little effort, guests can lean on technology to get them through the security process quicker.”

Airport amenity of the week: VeriFLY at Denver Int’l Airport

Have you been through an airport security checkpoint recently?

We have. And it has us worrying that as passenger numbers increase TSOs and travelers will too easily revert to the pre-COVID checkpoint mentality and not pay attention to social distancing and safety.

That’s why we’re not even waiting until Friday to declare the ‘Airport Amenity of the Week.’

We’re giving the nod to Denver International Airport (DEN), which is the first airport in the U.S. to begin using the VeriFLY app to let passengers reserve a checkpoint time and then travel to the gates in a reserved train car.

Here’s how it works:

Travelers download the VeriFLY app (only available for iPhone for now), create an account, and then reserve a time to through the checkpoint on their travel date. There’s a 15-minute show-up window and there are a limited number of reservations per hour.

Passengers must fill out a health survey within 24 hours of their flight. Then, on the day of their flight, they go to the designated VeriFLY lane at the south screening checkpoint at their reserved time.

A touch-less, electronic gate will scan the access code on the app. And temperatures will be taken before passengers move to either a standard or Precheck TSA screening lane.

Once through security, passengers using the VeriFLY system will travel to their respective concourses in a reserved train car. For social distancing, only 12 VeriFLY travelers will be allowed in the train car at a time.

Face masks/covering are, of course, required for all travelers.

We hope – and expect – more airports will begin using this system.

Airports welcome back travelers with new rules, protocols and promises

Airports are joining airlines in ramping up service and welcoming passengers back to terminals that have been all but empty for months due to a record coronavirus-induced drop in air traffic.

And, like the airlines, most every airport is going all out to proclaim extreme vigilance in keeping facilities clean and travelers safe.

Mask required for all passengers entering the terminals?  Yes at airports in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Denver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. and in many other cities. Airports in some other cities, such as Charlotte, recommend face masks be worn in the terminals although most airlines now require passengers wear masks from the curb to – and onto – the planes.

Don’t have a mask? Airports will have them for you.

The Federal Government is in the process of distributing more than 86 million masks to airports. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) now has a stash of 4.7 million masks for distribution. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) has 2.5 million masks ready to hand out.

Floor decals marking six-foot lengths to encourage social distancing? Check.

Harrisburg International Airport (MDT), not far from Hershey, PA, reminds travelers to stay 6 feet or 72 KISSES chocolates away from other passengers.

Upgraded and robust cleaning protocols? Check. Airport employees – and in some cases, robots, such as the autonomous robotic floor scrubbers at Pittsburgh International Airport – are wiping, washing, spraying and sanitizing at every turn.

Oodles of hand sanitizing stations? Check. Some airports have added hundreds of sanitizer dispensers and, like Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), now note the dispenser locations on maps and apps.

Plexiglass barriers at check-in counters, security checkpoints and gates? Check.

Step stools to make it easy for kids (and short people) to wash their hands in airport bathrooms? Check. More than 200 airports (and counting) now have Step ‘n Wash devices in the restrooms.

Shops and vending machines selling personal protective equipment? Check.

Many airport shops now stock PPE supplies and PPE vending machines are installed at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and at Denver International Airport. Hudson just announced plans to roll out PPE vending machines at 27 major airports in North America.

Branded plans and promises

Like the airlines, airports are also rolling out branded plans to underscore their commitment to cleanliness and passenger safety. 

The Houston Airport’s “FlySafeHouston” program includes adding facial comparison technology at 15 gates by October and UV disinfecting cuffs for escalators, among other measures.  

At Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport it’s the “MSY Travel Ready” plan. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) has a Travel Safely at LAX plan. Jacksonville International Airport has its JAX Airport Cares program. And at Miami International Airport, it’s #MIACares.”

In many cases airport COVID-19 response plans highlight new technology and bonus efforts being made. 

For example, the “Traveler Confidence Plan” at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport notes that the main escalators have “newly installed UV-C handrail sterilization modules” and that the airport has new high-capacity floor cleaners.

The #ReadySetROC initiative at the Greater Rochester International Airport (ROC) in New York promises that enhanced cleaning includes a regular misting of anti-bacterial cleaner/solution on seating and surfaces.

At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, which installed the country’s first vending machine filled with personal protective equipment (PPE), the campaign is dubbed “LAS All In,” and includes Vegas-themed slogans such as “Don’t roll the dice: Stay 6 ft apart!” and “We’re doubling down on cleaning and sanitizing.”

TSA has new safety protocols too

This summer travelers will also encounter some new protocols at most every airport security checkpoint in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Transportation Security Administration’s updated security procedures now allow travelers to carry up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer in carry-on bags, but require those containers to be screened separately. Passengers may also wear their face masks during the TSA screening process but should be ready to lower or adjust the mask for an identity check.

To avoid having TSA officers touch passengers’ paper boarding passes or mobile devices, TSA will ask all passengers to scan their own boarding pass and hold it up for a TSA officer to do a visual check.

And TSA now asks that any food packed in carry-on bags to removed and scanned separately. So to avoid having your food contaminated in a bin or on the belt, be sure to pack it inside a clear plastic bag.

TSA maps its COVID-19 cases

Airports are getting quieter and quieter, but some people are still flying.

So Transportation Security Administration officers are among the workers who must still show up for work.

Unfortunately, it turns out TSA workers aren’t immune to COVID-19 and there are have been some TSA officers who have tested positive for the virus. So it’s possible some passengers may have been exposed to the virus by these officers at some airports.

But which airports?

TSA has put together a map and is keeping a list.

Here’s what it looked like on March 23, 2020.

As of March 23, TSA said 25 screening officers had tested positive for COVID-19. An additional five non-screening employees who TSA says “have relatively limited interaction with the traveling public,” have tested positive for the virus as well.

Here’s the list of where TSA officers tested positive for the virus:

  • Newark-Liberty International Airport (EWR)
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
  • Orlando International Airport (MCO)
  • LaGuardia Airport (LGA)
  • Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CVG)
  • Cyril E. King International Airport (STT; St. Thomas, VI)
  • Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)
  • Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC)
  • Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood Int’l Airport (FLL)
  • Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY)

TSA says it continues to work with the CDC and state and local health departments to monitor local situations.

In the meantime, passengers will find that at some airports TSA has closed some checkpoints and is staffing others with reduced hours.