Airports Ready as Passenger Numbers Rise

Air terminals across U.S. roll out hand scanners, touchless takeout, other amenities to keep travelers safe

By Stacey Federoff

Published June 22, 2020

Read Time: 3 mins


Airports around the country are grappling with a slow return to a “new normal” using methods to keep people safe and healthy while traveling.

“This is all new to everybody. There isn’t a playbook,” said Perry Cooper, spokesman for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Sea-Tac is introducing several innovations, including helping to ensure that employees wash their hands thoroughly. Food service workers will use hand-scanning devices from a company called PathSpot.

READ MORE: Some PIT Concessions, Parking Lots Reopen As Travel Rebounds

“They put their hands underneath it, then it tells them whether they did a good job or not,” Cooper said.

The airport has added 250 hand-sanitizer stations throughout the airport and plotted them on a map for passengers. Sea-Tac also is working on an airport-wide, mobile ordering service called Grab that can be used tableside and at kiosks.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is adding hand-scanning devices to ensure employees wash their hands thoroughly. (Photo courtesy of PathSpot)

“Some of it you can order, potentially, within the concourse and, depending on the tenant, they could deliver it to you at your gate,” Cooper said. They hope to make that a reality in the next few weeks.

Passenger numbers across the country have continued to rise since Memorial Day, up to 590,456 passengers on Sunday. That’s an improvement from the lowest point on April 14, when about 87,500 people nationwide passed through TSA checkpoints. That’s 4 percent of the 2.2 million people who traveled on the same day in 2019.

To accommodate more travelers, restaurants and bars are now reopening, like at Tampa International Airport.

“It’s a balancing act between providing options to people and being able to operate these shops and restaurants without the concessionaires losing money,” said spokeswoman Emily Nipps.

Shops inside the airport are selling masks, and many have bins full of hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes for sale.

As passengers return, the challenge will be keeping airports clean and safe, and ensuring passengers can maintain safe distancing at TSA, gates and restaurants.

Nipps said passengers should expect longer wait times because of the new measures and reduced TSA staffing.

At Pittsburgh International, only 11 of 75 concessions remained open through the entire shutdown, said Kim Kitko, vice president of business development, although more are now beginning to open. The ones that stayed open were selected because of what customers needed most, she said. PIT continues to update its online list, including notes on which shops are selling face masks.

Travelers sit inside Penn Brewery, a restaurant located inside PIT’s Airside Terminal in June 2020. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

The airport staff is using the steady rise in passenger numbers to help gauge what should be reopened and when.

“We partner with a lot of different departments in the airport for planning exercises, sometimes daily, weekly, to review what we’re going to open next,” said Patrick Carreno, vice president of operations.

Primanti Brothers, home of the iconic Steel City sandwiches topped with French fries, provided take-out only over the last few months, but are now beginning sit-down seating at 50 percent capacity.

“As we start to open back up we have a very robust and comprehensive safety checklist that we’re going through with each vendor, each tenant, before they can open,” Kitko said.

Airports are helping passengers comply with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, including requiring the use of face masks, marking floors to encourage six-foot social distancing and adding plexiglass shields to ticket counters.

Parking at Pittsburgh International, most recently consolidated to the short-term garage with one free hour in lieu of the regular cell phone lot, is reopening in stages.

“Customers are showing a strong desire to have a little more control over their journey,” Kitko said. “Whatever makes the customer feel comfortable is what we want to provide in the most convenient, easy and economical fashion we can.”

Passengers also want a touchless journey as much as possible.

“We’re working with all locations to try and put that in place,” she said. “Each store has their own guidelines and as an airport we’re working towards developing a seamless, comprehensive process that would allow customers to order and check out, without having to really touch any equipment on the phone.”

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