CHICAGO - After months of hunkering down at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, travelers are slowly returning to the skies - some eagerly, some cautiously - and all curious to see how their first flight in months will be different.
On a recent morning at O'Hare International Airport's Terminal 1, used primarily by hometown carrier United Airlines, the scene was anything but what used to be considered normal. There were few families heading off on vacation and even fewer corporate road warriors killing time in the airport lounge. Employees appeared to outnumber travelers at the check-in area. A couple of workers used a lull between waves of flights to disinfect seats and kiosks.
Still, there are signs customers are coming back after travel plummeted this spring. Since mid-April, the number of people passing through U.S. airport security checkpoints each day has risen from below 90,000 to 576,514 on Thursday, according to the Transportation Security Administration. A year ago, there were 2,728,786 people, but it's the busiest that airports have been since late March.
The gradual return to air travel means fliers are likely to find airports cleaner and less crowded. Much about navigating the airport and boarding a flight remains the same. But from the shuttered airport shops to the hand sanitizer wipe handed to passengers when they board, the changes keep the pandemic front of mind.
Neither the airplane cabin nor the airport security line were designed for social distancing, and some efforts will depend on passengers' cooperation. Just this week, major U.S. carriers said they plan to rigorously enforce mask requirements after travelers complained on social media that other passengers weren't always following the rules.
"The more we do, the more customers will feel comfortable traveling," said Mike Hanna, who leads United's operations at O'Hare.
Knowing airlines require passengers as well as crew to wear masks reassured Louis and Lucille Luan, flying home to California Thursday after finishing the semester at the University of Illinois.
Their family encouraged the siblings to stay on campus when classes went virtual since COVID-19 wasn't spreading as rapidly in Champaign, but their lease ends in July and they decided it was time to head back.
But Lucille, 21, who hadn't flown since the pandemic started and canceled a spring break trip to Florida, noticed a couple of people with their faces uncovered while she waited in the check-in area.
"It made me a little nervous," she said.
On the other side of the security checkpoint, near the gates, every traveler appeared to be covering their face, and some added plastic face shields on top of a mask.
Widespread mask wearing and thinner crowds were the most obvious changes at the airport, particularly since consumers have gotten used to sneeze guards at stores, along with floor decals and signs reminding people to spread out in areas where lines form.
But there are other changes as well.
United lets passengers who have checked in online drop off bags touch-free. Kiosks will automatically print luggage tags when a traveler scans a mobile or printed boarding pass. Every other kiosk has been closed to give people more space.
Airport security is also the one spot travelers may be asked to lower a mask so an employee can check whether their ID is a match. Employees seated behind plastic screens still will take travelers' IDs but will ask them to scan their own boarding passes.
Despite the usual restrictions on liquids, TSA lets passengers bring a 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer, though it must be screened separately. Travelers who don't pack their own can find it at the airport. The Chicago Department of Aviation said it installed more than 120 hand sanitizer stations, including some wall-mounted dispensers where passengers collect belongings after security and near flight information boards.
The TSA also recommends taking snacks out of carry-on bags in addition to large electronics and liquids, since food can trigger an alert requiring extra screening.
Packing snacks might be smart, since airport dining options are more limited. On Thursday, Wolfgang Express, Jamba Juice and Starbucks were open, but a Duty Free store, Eli's Cheesecake and Garrett's Popcorn were temporarily closed.
Only one of United's O'Hare lounges is open, and an American lounge at O'Hare is scheduled to reopen Monday.
As one flight prepared to take off Thursday morning, a United employee summoned passengers to board, five rows at a time. Passengers weren't crowding the gate in hopes of boarding first like they did on pre-pandemic flights.
Instead, most seemed to be giving each other space while waiting to scan their boarding passes.
United and Delta have switched up the boarding order: Now, those in the back rows are the first to board, to keep passengers from walking past people already seated. Southwest lets people pick their seats but calls passengers up in groups of 10.
United said flight attendants reverse the process on landing, calling small groups up to leave starting at the front, unless someone has a particularly tight connection.
Airlines and the airport do their best to remind people to keep their distance with signs at check-in, airport security lines and on the jet bridge.
But for all the efforts to practice social distancing in the airport, it gets trickier once on board. Airlines aren't offering as many flights as usual so passengers could find more company on planes than they expected.
Delta and Southwest have pledged to leave every middle seat open through Sept. 30. American is temporarily leaving half its middle seats empty. On all carriers, people traveling together can fill middle seats if they choose.
United is giving passengers on relatively full flights a chance to switch to a later flight for no extra fee or take a travel credit. Few people given the option are switching, said spokesman Luke Punzenberger.
Because of the proximity of passengers to one another, airlines are relying on a range of precautions, including air filtration systems that cycle through air on board every couple of minutes, requiring passengers to wear masks and extra cleaning.
Those cleaning measures vary by airline, but United's protocol gives a look at steps airlines are taking to limit the chance of transmission on surfaces.
After one United flight landed at O'Hare Thursday morning, an employee walked down the aisle using an electrostatic sprayer, which looks like a cross between a power drill and a hair dryer, to spray a mist of disinfectant designed to get to hard-to-reach spots. A similar routine happens before every flight. At O'Hare, it uses similar technology to spray gate waiting areas every couple of days, in addition to more frequent traditional cleaning, Hanna said.
Employees also wipe down surfaces including armrests, door handles, lavatories, seatback screens and seat belts - even the jet bridge walls between each flight, Hanna said. A faint smell of disinfectant may greet passengers heading down the walkway to the aircraft, and United said it gives everyone a hand sanitizer wipe when they board.
American and Delta say they disinfect similar surfaces on planes after each flight. Delta also uses electrostatic sprayers after each flight. American uses the sprayers on planes every seven days, the length of time each treatment lasts, spokeswoman Gianna Urgo said.
Certain expected niceties have gone by the wayside to limit hands-on interactions between passengers and crew. Airlines have scaled back food and beverage service - a move that might make some travelers feel safer but left Alicia Davidson, 70, of Portal, Arizona, "just irritated."
"They're not feeding the passengers," she said while stopping in Chicago en route to Europe for a vacation with her husband.
Delta is limiting beverages to bottled water on all but long international flights. United and American aren't stocking buy-on-board food.
On United, coach travelers on domestic flights of at least 2 hours and 20 minutes get a plastic bag containing a small bottle of water and prepackaged snacks, including a stroopwafel. First-class passengers on most domestic flights get a snack box. United will only serve beverages in sealed containers and passengers get sanitizing wipes at boarding. In-flight magazines are gone, too.
Other precautions are strictly behind the scenes. United, for instance, turned an underused baggage claim into a temperature check station for employees. Frontier Airlines checks passengers' temperatures before flying. Other U.S. airlines don't require temperature checks, though United and Southwest Airlines require passengers to confirm they are symptom-free when checking in for a flight.
Some of the extra health and safety measures airlines have implemented will get tougher once travel rebounds. Keeping middle seats open is easy when relatively few people are flying, and workers have more time to clean planes when fewer flights leave slack in the schedule.
"If demand returns, it's going to be much more difficult and airlines are going to have to make conscious decisions. What matters more?" said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and president of the Atmosphere Research Group.
Still, travel will have to pick up quite a bit before airlines start having trouble keeping up. United, for instance, expects to handle about 260 flights a day at O'Hare in July, roughly 100 more than it does today but down from 600 in a typical summer, Hanna said.
American expects to operate a little more than twice as many flights in July as it did in June.
Reassuring passengers that "every protective measure is being taken" is just part of what it will take to get travelers back, Leff said.
It's hard to plan a trip amid uncertainty about potential spikes in cases, and there are still restrictions on international travel. Other cities may be open to visitors, but that doesn't mean attractions and restaurants are. Consumers affected by layoffs may be delaying travel for financial reasons.
"You have a lot of people sitting on the sidelines who are unable to travel or are afraid to, and I think they're waiting to see how it goes," Harteveldt said.
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