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How the pandemic has forever changed the airport experience

March 20, 2021
5 min read
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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

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“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

(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 image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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Rewards Rate

5XEarn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year.
5XEarn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.

    Earn 80,000 Points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

Pros

  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
  • This card comes with a long list of benefits, including access to Centurion Lounges, complimentary elite status with Hilton and Marriott, at least $500 in assorted annual statement credits and so much more. (Enrollment required for select benefits.)
  • The Amex Platinum comes with access to a premium concierge service that can help you with everything from booking hard-to-get reservations to finding destination guides to help you plan out your next getaway.

Cons

  • The high annual fee is only worth it if you’re taking full advantage of the card’s benefits. Seldom travelers may not get enough value to warrant the cost.
  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
  • The annual airline fee statement credit can be complicated to take advantage of compared to the broader travel credits offered by competing premium cards.
  • Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 back each month on eligible purchases made with your Platinum Card® on one or more of the following: Audible, Disney+, The Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The New York Times. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • Get up to $300 back per calendar year on the Equinox+ digital fitness app, or eligible Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
  • Breeze through security with CLEAR® lanes available at 100+ airports, stadiums, and entertainment venues and get up to $189 back per calendar year on your membership when you use your Card. Learn more.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees