Masks are a must. Middle seats will likely be full. 9 things to know if you haven’t been on a plane this year

Heading out soon for the holidays and haven’t been on a plane during the coronavirus pandemic?

If Thanksgiving travel is any indication, you’ll have plenty of company at the airport despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice to stay home due to surging coronavirus cases.

The traditional kickoff to the Christmas and New Year’s holiday travel season is this weekend – as schools get out for the year and many workers’ vacations begin – with steady crowds through Christmas Eve and picking up again the day after Christmas.

The travel patterns are anybody’s guess this year with remote school and work the reality for many Americans, but this much we know: the flying experience will be different.

9 things to know about flying during the pandemic this holiday travel season

1. Masks are required (over your mouth and nose) throughout the trip, from Uber rides to airport car rental shuttles. Expect to be bombarded with nonstop mask reminders, starting with online check in for your flight and continuing throughout the airport and on the plane. Airlines are monitoring mask usage during flights, allowing them to be removed only briefly while eating or drinking. And they are banning people who won’t wear them from flying during the pandemic. Delta Air Lines has placed nearly 700 people on its list.

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2. Some airlines and airports are doling out sanitizing wipes, but bring your own for added protection. Airlines have touted their pandemic cleaning and safety protocols for months, but travelers who want to wipe down their own tray tables, seats, arm rests and other surfaces and regularly sanitize their hands should stash some wipes and sanitizer in a carry-on. Note that the Transportation Security Administration’s liquid limits don’t apply to hand sanitizer during the pandemic, so you can can bring more than a travel-size bottle. The limit is 12 ounces.

3. U.S. airlines aren’t requiring COVID-19 test results to fly but will ask you some health questions during online check-in or at an airport kiosk. The questions vary by airline, but in general they ask you to acknowledge or pledge that you haven’t had a recent COVID-19 diagnosis or exposure and don’t have symptoms. Frontier Airlines takes the added step of passenger temperature screening during boarding. Don’t make the mistake of thinking no one will find out if you tested positive recently. A Hawaii couple was arrested for knowingly boarding a United flight after testing positive, and Maryland police stopped a mother and her COVID-19-positive son from boarding a flight after being alerted by local health authorities. Local and state public health officials who become aware of a person with a known or suspected to have a contagious disease can report the person to CDC, agency spokewoman Belsie González said. That might land you on the Public Health Do Not Board list, which means airlines won’t issue you a boarding pass. The list is enforced by the Transportation Security Administration.

CDC advice: Don’t travel for holidays but if you do get a COVID-19 test before and after.

COVID travel tests: 8 Do’s and Don’ts

United Airlines passengers flying during the coronavirus pandemic must fill out a health assessment during online check-in, on its mobile app or at the airport.
United Airlines passengers flying during the coronavirus pandemic must fill out a health assessment during online check-in, on its mobile app or at the airport.

4. You will likely be thisclose to other passengers at the airport and on the plane. Planes that were largely empty in the spring are slowly filling up as travel demand rebounds, even with COVID-19 cases surging and CDC recommendations not to travel. Airlines set pandemic passenger records during the Thanksgiving travel rush, and photos of crowded airports across the country freaked out people who haven’t been to an airport since the pandemic began.

Most airports and airlines have stickers on the floor and every other chair in the gate area to spread people out, but that’s not always an option, especially during peak times.

On the plane, you’re likely to have seatmates. Airlines blocked seats for a while in the name of social distancing (United execs called it a PR stunt), but all but Delta have abandoned the practice or will soon.

Some airlines will let you know if your flight is going to be full and will give you rebooking options. United Airlines alerted me about a potentially full flight in November via its mobile app, and Alaska Airlines announced in the gate area before boarding that a few passengers might be seated next to someone not in their traveling party. It called those passengers to the podium and said they could rebook on another flight if they were uncomfortable.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said recently that few passengers have taken the airline up on moving to a less-full flight.

Bye empty middle seat: Southwest to start filling planes in December

More room: Delta says it will block middle seats through March

5. Boarding is different as airlines aim to reduce crowds, but bottlenecks aren’t avoidable. Southwest is boarding in groups of 10 passengers instead of 30 and encouraging everyone else to stay seated until their group is called. (It doesn’t always work.) Delta, United, JetBlue, Hawaiian and others are boarding passengers from the back of the plane to the front of the plane (after first class, of course) so travelers have to pass fewer passengers. Habits are hard to break though, and passengers tend to still crowd the gate areas.

6. In-flight food and drink service is lacking. Airlines are keeping service at a minimum to reduce contact between flight attendants and passengers and to prevent passengers from keeping their masks off for long periods of time. Some major airlines are serving soft drinks and coffee again, but others are still just handing out water. Snack offerings are minimal and buy-on-board food hasn’t resumed on most airlines. Eat before your flight or bring your own food on board, especially for long flights.

Fancy an alcoholic beverage to toast your vacation? Forget about it in regular economy unless you’re flying discounters Spirit or Allegiant, which are still selling alcohol. And don’t think about sneaking your own on.

United Airlines resumed the sale of food and beer and wine on some flights out of Denver as a pandemic test, but the plan has been criticized by flight attendants worried passengers will keep masks off too long. The airline said it will limit passengers to one beer or wine during each beverage-cart service.

A JetBlue Airways flight attendant serves passengers snacks on a flight from New York to Cancun, Mexico. JetBlue has among the most generous free snack offerings during the pandemic.
A JetBlue Airways flight attendant serves passengers snacks on a flight from New York to Cancun, Mexico. JetBlue has among the most generous free snack offerings during the pandemic.

7. Airport dining and drinking options are limited, too, leading to lines or longer-than-usual waits. Many airport restaurants, shops and bars remain closed or have reduced their hours. Airports have added signs on what’s open and where. Places that are open have fewer seats and tables in a bid to promote social distancing. Want Starbucks, a meal or a cocktail before your flight? Arrive at the airport earlier than normal and be prepared to traverse terminals in some cases.

8. Deplaning is (mostly) still a mess. When a flight lands these days, flight attendants on several airlines now ask passengers to avoid clogging the aisles, with some even calling groups of rows to depart and telling other passengers to stay seated. Occasionally it goes off flawlessly, but more often than not, passengers jump up to retrieve their bags as soon as the plane parks at the gate

9. Clueless passenger behaviors continue. Anyone who’s flown this year knows some things never change. Travelers still watch videos and movies without headphones (we’re not just talking about kids), take off their shoes during the flight and jump the line like a VIP when getting off the plane.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID travel: 9 things to know before a holiday flight amid pandemic

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