Traveling for the holidays? Here’s how to avoid contracting COVID-19 at the airport

Scientists say airports are more dangerous than airplanes – at least when it comes to your chances of being infected with the coronavirus. After all, airports are filled with passengers who may not practice social distancing or even wear a mask. It might be difficult to avoid a coronavirus infection at the airport.

So if you’re about to take a trip, how do you protect yourself? Fred Siegel wants to know. He recently flew from Phoenix to Newark, New Jersey, with his wife for a family emergency. He hoped his fellow passengers would follow all the mask rules. They didn’t.

“There were many people in the terminal not wearing masks at all,” he says. “Those who did sometimes wore them improperly with their noses fully exposed.”

The experience left Siegel, a former state employee, feeling dangerously exposed. He and his wife wore two masks each, just to make sure they didn’t get infected. Fortunately, they stayed healthy.

There are several proven ways to avoid infection when you transit through an airport. They include fully researching the risks, looking for the telltale signs of an unclean airport, and taking the right precautions.

COVID-19 risks at the airport are real

But Siegel’s experience shines a light on one of the most overlooked aspects of travel. While airlines have received a lot of attention for their cleaning initiatives, the risk of transiting through an airport has been largely overlooked by travelers, but fortunately not by my USA TODAY colleagues.

And while cleaning robots, COVID-19-sniffing dogs and extreme cleaning look good on paper, it’s far likelier that during the busy holiday travel season, you’ll end up like Siegel – stuck in a crowd of other passengers who may or may not believe the coronavirus is a risk.

“Smart travelers should not rely on airports for their disinfection protocols,” says Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, which provides medical, security, travel risk and crisis management. “They should be prepared to protect themselves from the airport to plane by adhering to the basic guidelines of masking, hand sanitizing and physical distancing.”

Know the COVID-19 risks

That’s the advice of Lori Calavan, Allianz Partners’ senior medical consultant. She recommends checking the Safe Travel Barometer website. “It’s a comprehensive database that lists current COVID-19 traveler health and safety protocols,” she says. Its airport scores are based on an independent audit of more than 200 airports and 29 traveler health and safety measures. Atlanta, New York and Boston are ranked safest in the U.S.

The Transportation Security Administration also publishes a list of airports that shows how many employees have tested positive at each one. If its agents are showing up to work with an infection, that might be a sign to be extra vigilant.

Do your own research

Don’t take someone else’s word when it comes to avoiding a coronavirus infection at the airport. Find out for yourself, says Robert Quigley, global medical director of International SOS, which advises companies on health threats. “Before your departure, look into the risk mitigation efforts your departure and arrival airports have implemented during the pandemic,” he says. “And ensure you’re comfortable with them as they’ll vary from location to location.” Put differently, the scorecards are nice, but nothing beats doing your own research.

Look for signage

Is there a way to tell if an airport is properly cleaned? Yes, says Sean McCrady, national service line manager of safety science firm UL’s healthy buildings group. Be on the lookout for signage that describes the cleaning process in detail. It might include the process or the type of cleaners used. A two-step process with soap and water, followed by disinfectants, is ideal.  

“Staff should be making the rounds and cleaning frequently throughout the workday,” he adds. “Surfaces should appear visibly clean.”

Take precautions

You know those cleaning robots some airports are using? Christopher Andrews is one of the guys behind them. He’s the director of mobility and innovation at engineering development firm Pratt Miller. And he says that if you want to avoid being infected at the airport, there’s no substitute for taking precautions.

“While our robot can minimize the risk of COVID-19 transfer from surfaces, I believe you also should protect yourself from person-to-person transfer – especially if you’re in a high-risk category,” he says. Andrews recommends wearing a KN95 mask and carrying disinfecting spray or wipes to clean your hands if you contact a surface.

“Assume any surface you touch could be infected,” he says. “And keep your distance from crowds to minimize risk.”

Clean it yourself

Don’t just carry disinfecting spray or wipes. Use them, says Erica James, a travel adviser from Nashville.

“I don’t assume anything is cleaned,” she says. “I feel it’s my responsibility to ensure that my area is cleaned and maintained to the best of my ability.”


She packs her own soap (Dial, because that’s what surgeons use to scrub), hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. And she sanitizes everything – seats, tables, armrests, even TV screens. James says it’s great if the airport cleans all the surfaces before she arrives. But at a time like this, there’s no harm in doing it again.

Make it quick and keep your distance

Do your best to minimize the amount of time you’re in the terminal, says Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. And stay away from other passengers.

“It’s the amount of time you spend inside the airport before and after the flight that are most critical,” he says. “This also includes airport lounges, which are problematic due to the sheer number of travelers that you have the potential to interface with during your time spent eating, drinking and simply waiting. It’s the number of people who don’t wear a mask, don’t wash their hands, and don’t physically distance that places you at most risk for acquiring the virus.” 

The steps for avoiding infection at the airport may sound like a lot, but they’re similar to the precautions you probably already take when you go to the grocery store or school. If avoiding infection at the airport seems like too much trouble, don’t worry. You can always celebrate the holidays at home this year. 

These are the safest major American airports

Safe Travel Barometer grades airports based on COVID-19 safety protocols, traveler convenience, customer service and traveler experience, and it awards each a score ranging from 1 to 5. The specific criteria include the availability of contactless check-in and baggage drop, on-site testing and whether travelers and employees wear masks.

Here are the top 10:

  • Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). 4.3
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York (JFK): 4.3
  • Boston-Logan International Airport (BOS): 4.3
  • Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL): 4.2
  • Philadelphia International Airport (PHL): 4.2
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): 4.2
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO):  4.2
  • O’Hare International Airport, Chicago (ORD): 4.2
  • Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW): 4.1
  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA): 3.9

Source: Safe Travel Barometer

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