A traveler walks through PIT's Airside Center Core in July 2020. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Travelers Express Confidence in Airports Despite COVID Worries

Call it The Great Travel Recession.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought commercial air travel to a near-standstill. Reflecting the rest of the nation, passenger traffic through Pittsburgh International Airport hit historic lows in April and May, as mere hundreds passed through the security checkpoint rather than the normal 15,000 per day.

Following modest gains in June, demand for air travel is once again trending down, as coronavirus cases have begun to spike at popular leisure destinations including Florida, Texas, Arizona, California and the Carolinas.

Whipsaw impacts from the pandemic and evolving quarantine restrictions in various states have many aviation officials wondering what will it take to make passengers feel comfortable traveling in the time of COVID.

A recent survey of 500 Western Pennsylvania travelers, commissioned by PIT, offers this insight: While travelers continue to worry about air travel, many trust their airports to keep them healthy and safe on their journeys.

In the survey, 68 percent of respondents identified airplanes as the highest risks for germs, including COVID-19. But 62 percent said they trust the airport to take the necessary precautions to help ensure their safety.

The vast majority of respondents said they will abide by additional airport safety precautions, with 96 percent saying they plan to wear masks, and 92 percent agreeing to social distance on their travels.  About two-thirds plan to bring wipes for the plane or other surfaces, and most said they plan to carry hand sanitizer with them.

Survey respondents said they are most concerned about cleanliness of the airplane and close proximity to other people. They also identified concerns about cleanliness of airport facilities and risks in congested areas: at the security checkpoint, on the people movers and in restrooms.

“We wanted to investigate how passengers’ behaviors are changing, where they get information about travel and areas at the airport that cause the most concern, in order to better inform our strategies to create a safe and clean environment,” said Samantha Stedford, director of Customer Experience.

Stedford said the survey results confirm that the airport’s recently launched PIT Safe Travels Program is in line with travelers’ expectations. The program includes initiatives such as mandatory mask wearing, additional deep cleaning protocols and emphasis on social distancing.

Of additional safety protocols passengers would like to see, most cited high-tech sanitization processes such as UV cleaning and air filtration systems. PIT is already ahead of the curve on that one, having deployed the industry’s first autonomous UV floor scrubbing robots to zap germs back in May.

In a significant shift from pre-pandemic sentiment, 21 percent of travelers said they would take a ride share such as Uber or Lyft to or from the airport, down from 29 percent in pre-pandemic estimates.

Stedford said data from the survey helps airport leaders understand additional opportunities and make better decisions for the future.

“We want to make sure our efforts continue to be responsive to the needs and concerns of our passengers throughout the pandemic and beyond,” she said.

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