Travelers returning to the US face hourslong waits, chaos in airports

Mar 15, 2020

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On March 11, President Trump shocked the aviation industry by unilaterally suspending the entry of foreign nationals who had been in or transited through the European Schengen Area in the prior 14 days in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Anyone flying into the United States past March 13 at 11:59 p.m. would be restricted to a small handful of international gateway airports for an “enhanced entry screening.” The Department of Homeland Security issued guidance that the enhanced measures would include questions about passengers’ medical history, current health condition, contact information for local authorities and most importantly, written guidance about COVID-19 and direction to immediately home-quarantine upon arrival to their final destination.

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By many accounts, several of the approved arrival airports quickly became a health hazard themselves. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), with little time to prepare for the mandate, seemed to put forward few or none of the announced measures while simultaneously creating multi-hour backups to clear customs and immigration.

Related: Should I travel? Advice for the coronavirus outbreak

Photos quickly emerged on social media of throngs of passengers queued up in close quarters at airports, seemingly with no access to disinfectants or protective gear:

Images of packed customs halls at Dallas-Fort Worth, O’Hare and Newark showed scenes that would be considered organized chaos on the best of days, and an outright dangerous scene in light of the communicable virus.

Passengers are said to have been stuck for four to six hours in arrivals halls, with “zero temperature checks or questions about their travel” from CBP.

Firsthand accounts tell of CBP officers not wearing masks and passengers having to use fingerprint scanners that were not being sanitized between uses.

Several elected and government officials have not minced words, calling on CBP to improve its screening processes and to fully staff points of entry to stop creating passenger bottlenecks, including Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, after the wait at O’Hare is said to have reached six hours just to get through baggage claim.

DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf tweeted that the DHS was aware of the long lines at its facilities and that it was working to add additional screening capacity.


At the rate airlines are drawing down their international flight schedule, however, it may be a moot point as fewer and fewer passengers are able to enter the country. American Airlines announced Saturday night that it would cut back its international route network to just serve London Heathrow to Dallas and Miami once a day, as well as Dallas to Tokyo Narita three times a week.

For more on travel during the coronavirus outbreak, see:

Feature image by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

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