Navigating the “New Normal” of Airports
Chances are, if you have visited an airport in the past year, things look much different than they did pre-pandemic. Even the most seasoned travelers are finding themselves navigating the “new normal” of the airports! So, what do the airports look like now (as of Summer 2021)? And, how can you best prepare for your upcoming air travel adventure?
State of the Union for Air Travel and Airports
Air Travel and Airport Passenger volume is continuing to rise back up to the levels of 2019, with more and more passengers taking to the friendly skies daily. In 2020, US air-passenger traffic fell more than 60% from 2019. Last year, we saw empty seats and nearly vacant airport security lines. That is NOT the case this year.
On July 1st and July 2nd, TSA screened more passengers than during the corresponding days in 2019.
Airports still aren’t quite as busy as they were before the pandemic… but they are getting there. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is reporting hundreds of thousands more passengers a day in 2021, in comparison to last year. In fact, on July 1st and July 2nd, TSA screened more passengers than during the corresponding days in 2019. That was the first time this has happened since the pandemic first began.
With vaccinations accelerating and social distancing guidelines being reduced, people are ready to travel again. We have seen leisure bookings pushing traveler numbers up (nearly back to pre-pandemic pace). Generally heavy tourist destinations (beaches, warm weather, and outdoors) are seeing a surge in demand. Four airports where we are seeing staggering passenger numbers include Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, and Miami. Airports where we are still seeing a slower pace to recovery include San Francisco (down 46.6%), New York La Guardia (down 45.6%), Boston, New York JFK, and Philadelphia. The main factor to these airports having lower passenger numbers has been that these are business-traveler-heavy and strong international gateway airports (both of which have been hindered by the pandemic).
Looking at global airports, their traveler volumes continue to increase, as well. London Heathrow is seeing close to 60,000 passengers departing daily. These numbers are very far behind pre-COVID numbers but continuing to increase nonetheless. The top destinations for UK travelers are Spain and Greece.
What Are the Crowds Like?
The number one question we get from first-time post-pandemic travelers is “what are the crowds like?”
It depends on the airport. When surveying our own Account Managers and Executives who have recently traveled, it just depends on the airport – even within the same city/region. For example, Los Angeles Airport (LAX) shows an increase in activity and number of passengers, while John Wayne Orange County (SNA) remains slower in activity and number of passengers. Busy airports that our employees have seen include Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Reno, Denver, and Newark.
Ticketing, TSA, and Security Lines
With the increasing number of travelers and airlines, TSA, and airport teams working to ramp up their staff to meet demand, you can expect some wait times.
TSA is hiring as fast as it can to meet demand. Over the 4th of July weekend, TSA officials launched a campaign to hire 6,000 more workers with an ongoing ramp-up through Labor Day.
Unanimously from our FROSCH teams, it is highly recommended that you apply/sign up for the primary “expedited” security process that works for you – i.e. Global Entry, TSA PreCheck, CLEAR, and/or US Customs & Border Protection’s Mobile Passport app.
An “expedited” security process assists in avoiding any long lines upon arrival back to the USA from international travel and TSA lines domestically. We have seen non-expedited lines adding anywhere from 20 minutes (domestically) to 1.5 hours (from returning from international travel) at TSA checkpoints or Customs without these expedited security clearances. Also, we recommend checking with the destinations you will be visiting surrounding “proof of being fully-vaccinated” or quarantine requirements – as they may be addressed upon your return to the USA.
As TSA is trying to ramp back up, so are the airlines and airports. Airports and airlines are working to get their staff back on the clock as soon as they are able. Our employees while traveling have noticed longer lines for checking luggage. We recommend that you purchase the luggage option ahead of your arrival at the airport if you do not have status so that you can tag your bags and avoid waiting in long lines at baggage check – taking your bag right to the luggage drop area.
Something to keep in mind, if heading back to the airports has you nervous (especially while traveling internationally), FROSCH does offer a “meet and greet” service to assist clients traveling internationally.
Plan ahead and expect travel delays. Travel delays are common during the summer months, due to weather patterns, higher traveler volume, etc. Data compiled by FlightAware shows that 25% of flights were at least 15 minutes late from June 1 – July 25. And, flights out of Los Angeles International (LAX) departed late more than 20% of the time in June (with 155 cancellations) – per Cirium – an aviation data company. Arrive at the airport a little earlier than you usually would – for security lines and anticipating potential travel delays.
Navigating the Airports – Food, Shops, and Pre-Flight
The airports are still getting back up on their feet when it comes to restaurants and shops. Some airports are back to business as usual, while others provide limited in-airport options. Parallel to the crowd levels, it just depends on the airport. But the key is to pack your patience! If you want a Starbucks coffee or a sandwich before boarding your next flight, keep in mind that airports are just starting to rebound themselves with their staffing needs. So, lines might be longer due to limited staff or limited options still within the terminals. Allow at least 30 minutes for to-go food and drink stops in the airports. We do still suggest the general tip of bringing your own snacks and food, just in case. And, although some airlines have moved back to light refreshments while in-flight, make sure to bring some snacks to tide you over until your final destination or next flight.
Passports / Visas
Travelers should be aware that passports are a hot topic issue right now. It is currently taking nearly 8-12 weeks to obtain a renewal from the US Passport Office and traditional passport and visa “expeditors” are subject to this same 8-12 week wait time as individual travelers. If you are traveling internationally in the coming months – check your passports and visas now!
The planes are back to nearly full capacity. Domestic flights are seeing 77% full on average (Airlines for America trade group). Low-Cost Carriers are seeing load factors in the 90% (National Air Carriers Association). Flights, in general, are close to 89% full – compared to 90% in the same period in 2019 (Airlines for America Group – representing the largest US Airlines).
The middle seats are available for seating – so be prepared for potentially going back to no open seats. Eating and drinking are allowed on board, but people (for the most part) remain respectful of eating and drinking and then putting masks back on. The airlines have even come up with ways to circumvent taking your mask off. For example, on Southwest Airlines, they have shown a laminated card with images of drinks – each given a number 1-4 – and you simply show the number you would like from the flight attendant with your hands.
Flight crews continue to make it very clear that federal law requires everyone to wear a mask in flight. The CDC requires ALL people (unvaccinated and vaccinated) to wear face coverings on planes.
Experts have agreed, it is indeed safe to travel if you take the proper health precautions. Keep ventilation on above your head on the plane. Try to sit with your immediate party and/or distance yourself from others as much as possible. Wear a mask. And, knowing you are COVID-free before travel will put your mind at ease – testing 72 hours before arrival.
Safety protocols and mandates continue to be in place in airports and airplanes. Masks continue to be mandated, with some travelers even double masking and donning face shields. Be sure to check the mask protocols for your individual airline and country destination too.
Maria has traveled extensively during the pandemic – traveling from Colombia to Mexico, Miami, and locally in-country. She mentioned that within Mexico and Colombia, there are online forms that you need to fill out prior to getting to the airport. So, it is very important to check the airline and country websites before heading to the airport. Other important notes that Maria had: Latin America carriers are strict with how you board and leave the aircraft (i.e. organized back-to-front and front-to-back respectively), flights from Colombia to Miami – they were not allowing bringing your own drinks on the plane, and for non-US based travelers – in some countries within Europe (and others) are asking for your vaccination card to be in either the local language or English – with Spanish not being allowed in certain European countries.
It is important to make sure travelers understand the local restrictions and requirements to enter a destination and return to the US. As a FROSCH client, utilize FROSCH’s Corporate Travel GuideMe and check out the US Embassy page for the country you plan to visit.
Traveling in this “post-pandemic” world will require a suitcase full of patience and the ability to adapt. Things are new and different than they were a few months ago, but not necessarily in a bad way!
“I’ve always felt very safe traveling, and there are some things that make you think – ‘Why wasn’t this done before?’,” says Maria Cardenas. “Even if not during a pandemic, the distancing of people, the organized boarding of planes, and cleanliness of everything.”
The key airport and air travel takeaways: Travel is back! The planes are generally packed and anyone about to step inside an airport should be prepared for crowds and navigating the new normal.
Let FROSCH help you! Book with a travel advisor and utilize all the resources available at your fingertips with FROSCH for navigating your next air travel adventure.
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