The airline industry doesn’t expect Thanksgiving travel to match levels it saw in 2019, when 31.6 million Americans traveled, but it is anticipating an increase in passengers during the holiday, which is expected to run from Nov. 18 through Dec. 1 this year.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport expects a busy few days at its terminals.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that Americans shouldn’t travel for Thanksgiving, due to the spike in COVID-19 cases nationwide.
It’s not too late to make changes to your itinerary. While in years past, it might have been difficult to make the decision to change your plans this close to your departure, most airlines are offering extremely flexible cancellation and rebooking policies because of the pandemic. If you don’t feel safe to travel, you don’t have to.
An important reminder: If you test positive for the virus, do not travel. Stay home.
And even if you do test negative, know you are safer at home.
However, there may be a reason you need to fly for the holidays. If you do, here are some of the things to know about traveling during the pandemic.
Sky Harbor Airport has a mask mandate. So do airlines
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has some free cloth masks available just after security. (Photo: Melissa Yeager/The Republic)
The advice from nearly everyone in the aviation industry — from the Transportation Security Administration to the airports and airlines themselves — is that the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to wear a mask.
Evidence shows that masks work as a layer of protection to prevent the spread of the virus by keeping large droplets that could contain the virus off your neighbors as well as some of the smaller droplets. Be kind to others and wear your mask while traveling to keep your germs to yourself.
If you don’t wear one, you’ll be asked to leave the flight and could be banned from future flights. If you approach security without one, the TSA agent will ask you to put one on if you have it. If you don’t have one, they will provide one.
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The airport has free masks. But finding one that’s comfortable is key
The Federal Emergency Management Agency donated 1.8 million cloth masks to Sky Harbor for distribution to passengers and employees. You’ll find them in a bin just past security. You can also request one at the Information Counters or find them in the Rental Car Center.
You can also find vending machines where you can purchase masks throughout the terminals.
But experts say it’s best to find a comfortable, well fitting mask before you travel. Consider a face shield to protect the virus from entering through your eyes.
“You want it to be comfortable, because if it’s not, you are going to be tempted to try and lift it up a little bit to breathe or shifted around on your face or something like that,” Kacey Ernst, an epidemiologist with the University of Arizona, said.
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How to check COVID-19 travel restrictions before you fly
Before you depart, check the quarantine and COVID-19 testing requirements for both your home and destination.
“Often times you check the rules for where you’re departing but not where you’re going,” David Pekoske, administrator for the Transportation Security Administration, said during a call with reporters on Nov. 19.
If you’re flying internationally on American Airlines, consider downloading its VeriFLY app. It will help you navigate and verify you have all the correct documentation so you won’t be denied entry at your destination.
Ken Fisher of American Airlines talks about safety measures and precautions the company is taking at Sky Harbor Airport to help keep people safe.
Consider getting a COVID-19 test before (and after) you fly
Consider COVID-19 testing before and after traveling to make sure you’re aware of your COVID-19 status and can stay home if you test positive.
While the test provides you important information to make sure you don’t spread the virus to others, it does have limitations. Know that if you test negative, you’re just testing negative in that moment. You could still have the virus but not at a detectible level yet. You could get exposed to the virus during the process of traveling. You still need to take other precautions like wearing a mask and keeping your distance when in public.
On Nov. 18, Gov. Doug Ducey told the Department of Health Services to work with area airports to open onsite rapid COVID-19 testing facilities at the airport. Sky Harbor plans to partner with XpresCheck to offer testing and it will open during the Thanksgiving holiday travel period.
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Don’t expect an empty airport during the holidays
Airports will be crowded — especially Sky Harbor.
While overall air traffic is down significantly since last fall, Sky Harbor has an increasing number of passengers, as people from northern states come to Arizona to escape the cold.
There are a few things you can do to help navigate the crowds. Check your flight status before you depart to make sure you don’t spend unnecessary time at the airport. Also, check security wait times on the Sky Harbor website and arrive with plenty of time to get through the line.
The airport is on a 24-hour cleaning schedule.
Travelers walk with their luggage at Terminal 4 on Nov. 12, 2020, at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. (Photo: Sean Logan/The Republic)
In terms of transportation to the airport, Sky Harbor does expect traffic near the terminal over the holidays. To avoid that, consider picking up or dropping off travelers at the 44th St. PHX Sky Train Station. The recommended limit for the the number of passengers in a train compartment is 15.
Also, make sure to check with your destination airport about its COVID-19 procedures. For instance, Denver’s VeriFLY app will allow you to make a reservation for a dedicated “TSA screening lane and a reserved limited-capacity train car to the concourse.” See more at https://www.flydenver.com/verifly.
What will be the busiest travel days?
Airline industry experts predict that Wednesday, Nov. 25, and Sunday, Nov. 29, will be the busiest travel days around Thanksgiving.
Yet, with more people working from home and children doing distance learning this year, they also expect the window for Thanksgiving travel will be a couple days longer this year, running from Nov. 18 through Dec. 1 as people look to travel on less busy days to avoid crowds.
What to expect at airport security
When you reach security, a few things have changed. Here’s what you need to know.
- If your license has expired after March 1, don’t worry if you weren’t able to renew it. TSA says it “will accept expired driver’s licenses or state-issued ID a year after expiration or 60 days after the duration of the emergency, whichever is longer.”
- At the checkpoint, make sure to respect the social distancing markers on the ground. There are plexiglass dividers between the TSA agents accepting your license and boarding pass. When you reach that checkpoint, the TSA agent will ask you to lower your mask for a moment to match your face to your identification.
- TSA agents will be wearing face shields and regularly changing their gloves. Know you can also ask for the agent to change gloves. The bins are cleaned every day, but consider putting loose items in your carry-on bag before screening instead of in the bin.
- If you have a medical condition or disability, TSA has a help line to answer questions about screening procedures and what to expect at security. Call 855-787-2227.
- Though it might be too late for Thanksgiving, consider enrolling in TSA PreCheckto move through security quicker for the Christmas and New Year holidays.
What are you allowed to bring through airport security?
The Transportation Security Administration has a website where you can find out what items are allowed in your checked and carry-on luggage.
The general rule of thumb is anything liquid, gel or spreadable must be checked or be less than 3 ounces to go in your carry-on. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer through security as well as disinfecting wipes.
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Are there places to eat on the other side of security at Sky Harbor?
Yes. Sky Harbor has slowly started reopening restaurants as the airport has seen increased traffic. Some of the full-service restaurants have plexiglass dividers between seats.
A few of the restaurants are also operating on a reduced schedule, so you may find your options limited depending on the time of day you are traveling. However, you should be able to find one food option open on each concourse.
Why it’s smart to download your airline’s app
Airline apps do more than just download your boarding pass. Airlines are adding more features to make traveling more efficient and enjoyable. This year, some of the features might be handy for helping you keep your distance from crowds in the airport.
For instance, many airlines like American and Southwest send a push notification when your flight starts boarding. That means if your gate is crowded, you can go to a less busy part of the airport and still know when to board your flight.
How to book a parking spot at the airport
If you’re parking at the airport, planning ahead can save you a few bucks. You can book parking in advance online and receive a discount of up to 50%.
Where to catch Uber or Lyft at Sky Harbor Airport
There are designated areas for ride-share pickups and drop-offs at each terminal:
- Terminal 3: Level 1, south curb outside Door 4.
- Terminal 4: Level 1, north curb outside Door 1.
- Terminal 4: Level 1, south curb outside Door 8.
If you get picked up or dropped off at the 44th St. PHX Sky Train Station, you’ll save a little money as the fee for getting picked up at that location is $2.80 opposed to $4 at a terminal.
Are the lounges open at Sky Harbor?
One of the American Airlines Admirals Clubs and the Delta lounge are open but operating at reduced capacity. The Escape Lounge (which, by the way, is offering a discounted pass on Groupon) reopened Nov. 20. The Centurion Lounge is expected to reopen soon, but no specific date has been announced yet.
Need extra help? Compassion Cacti program
If you or a loved one need a little extra time and compassion during your journey, consider signing up for the airport’s Compassion Cacti lanyard program which uses brightly colored lanyards to alert airport personnel that you might need a little extra patience at the airport.
Fill out the form at skyharbor.com. You do not have to provide any medical documentation.
The airport will review the request and respond in five to seven days. You can then pick up the lanyard from the Compassion Corner office at Sky Harbor before or on the day of your flight. While there, you can check out the airport’s new sensory room inside the airport chapel near the B Checkpoint in Terminal 4.
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If you have a flight problem, slide into those airline DMs
You may wonder if tweeting at your airline is the best way to get help if something goes wrong with your flight. Know that airlines’ social media teams are staffed with problem-solving experts who are trained to react quickly. It’s not impolite to send them a direct message. Just be specific and pleasant.
Wanna get ahead for 2021? Start planning for Real ID
The deadline for having a Real ID was pushed back to next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So starting Oct. 1, 2021, your identification needs to be Real ID-compliant to board a domestic flight in the United States. Make a mental note to replace your drivers license with one that meets Real ID standards.
How do you know if your Arizona drivers license is a Real ID? If it has a gold star in the upper right-hand corner, you can use it to board a plane. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to get a new ID or use another compliant ID such as a passport or military ID.
You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager through email at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
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