How the pandemic has forever changed the airport experience

Mar 20, 2021

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Last week, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened the most people at airport security checkpoints since March 15, 2020. 

These numbers indicate that U.S. air travel is experiencing a resurgence, which means airports are slowly coming back to life. But the airports we departed from last March will look significantly different than the ones we’re pulling up to in 2021. There will be way less human interaction, and certain pandemic precautions could stay in place much longer at the airport than they will elsewhere. 

Airports might never look or feel the same again — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Biometrics got a boost 

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

TSA PreCheck, with its specially designated security lines at airports that often move much faster than the standard lanes, is popular with frequent flyers. But certain aspects of the TSA security screening process haven’t changed during the pandemic, such as have to remove your mask at the checkpoint. 

However, for people who feel a tinge of discomfort at pulling down their masks – even just to go through security – there’s another option at some airports.

That comes from the privately owned Clear, an expedited security program that uses biometrics to speed along the process of getting people through security at airports and stadiums.

Clear is currently only available at a handful of airports and stadiums, but it’s allowed travelers to keep their masks on during the pandemic since it verifies a person’s identity with his or her eyes or face. I’m strongly considering signing up for Clear because I’d prefer to keep my mask on at the airport unless I’m eating or drinking. Experts say other travelers feel the same — and that biometrics companies are working to make their software work with masks. 

Related: TPG’s guide to Clear at airports and stadiums

“Passengers clearly prefer having their eyes scanned rather than taking off their masks,” said Joe Leader, the CEO of APEX, one of the largest international airline associations that focuses on passenger experiences.

And pandemic precautions such as mask mandates may remain part of the air travel experience long after they’ve disappeared from other parts of daily life.

Leader said airports and airplanes would be among the last places to relax pandemic rules. That means features we’ve gotten used to throughout the pandemic, such as relying on biometric screening, will be here to stay (at least for a while) even if mandates are relaxed elsewhere

Travelers demanded touch-free experiences

Suitcase or luggage with conveyor belt in the airport.
(Photo by Weerayut Ranmai / EyeEm / Getty Images)

Airports are now reimagining every aspect of the overall experience, from check-in to how meals are served in food courts and lounges. From the moment they drop their bags to the minute they board the plane, passengers want as little contact with others as possible. 

In one of the earliest changes in the travel industry, many airlines and companies shut down their airport lounges. And while several did stay open, it was with limited service.

Amex initially closed all 13 of its Centurion Lounges due to the pandemic. Several have since reopened, and one of the newest lounges at New York-JFK is serving full meals and alcoholic beverages — but it’s not self-serve. 

Other airports are also cutting down on high-touch areas. Miami International Airport (MIA), for instance, rolled out new features to meet the needs of social distancing including a contactless food ordering app where travelers can order meals online without having to queue.

“Touchless technology, that’s going to the present and the future of the airport,” said Indira Almeida-Pardillo, a spokeswoman for Miami International. 

Other airports have gone touchless at check-in kiosks and feedback devices. For example, Simplified Arrival is a system the airport uses that utilizes biometric facial recognition to screen passengers upon arrival to the U.S., minimizing the amount of time travelers spend waiting in line.

And while some of these features will likely disappear after the pandemic, experts say many are here to stay.

“[Travelers] are going to see less of a crowded experience, [and] more of a touch-free as possible experience,” said Leader of APEX, “including self bag tag and … [a] biometric baggage drop.”

Related: 7 ways I’ve changed my flight routine to make pandemic travel easier

Bottom line

In a post-pandemic world, there will be more of an emphasis on avoiding contact between others and less time hanging around the gate or at a restaurant. Travelers will likely prefer lounges with outdoor seating and airports are already updating their technology for a post-COVID-19 world. Cleanliness will likely take precedent over amenities, but for travelers who just want to hit the road again, that might not be a bad thing.

Featured photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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