Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is preparing to handle hundreds of thousands of Fourth of July travelers in the coming days, with the added challenge of encouraging social distancing and other precautions amid a surge in coronavirus cases around the country.
The holiday travel period kicked off Thursday with an estimated 100,000 passengers passing through the airport, and Independence Day crowds are expected to continue through Monday. Delta Air Lines alone is expecting to handle 150,000 passengers in Atlanta through the weekend and 600,000 across its system.
The airport has added social distancing markers, hand sanitizer and Plexiglas dividers. Employees are handing out masks to passengers who need them.
"This is probably the most different Fourth of July travel day we've had, maybe ever in the history of this airport," said Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager John Selden.
Passenger counts are still down about 65% year-over-year, but the return of airline traffic and holiday travel have pushed the numbers significantly higher than in mid-April. At the lowest point, only about 2,000 passengers a day passed through security at Hartsfield-Jackson, when travel had plummeted more than 95% due to COVID-19.
Over the past couple of months, travel has been slowly recovering. Yet, like the rest of the country, the airport and airlines are still dealing with the virus.
On Wednesday, after a Transportation Security Administration screener tested positive for the coronavirus, the main security checkpoint shut down for a deep cleaning and passengers were redirected to the smaller Terminal North checkpoint. Some travelers had to wait in line for more than an hour with queues stretching into the domestic terminal atrium. The main checkpoint reopened by Thursday.
Airport officials advise travelers to arrive at the terminal at least two hours before their flights in order to get through check-in and security, then make it to their gates in time.
Selden said the airport is trying to minimize contact between people.
“We’re trying to make this airport touchless,” he said. Passengers will still need to handle things like security screening bins at checkpoints, but there are now hand sanitizer dispensers available close by.
Officials recommend travelers walk to their concourses if they are able, using the underground tunnels to avoid crowded people-mover trains.
As traffic grows, the airport has reopened some concourses and concessions. Concourse B reopened in late June and part of Concourse E reopened Sunday.
“Based on what we’re seeing, [traffic] is growing weekly,” said Wassim Takriti, vice president of the dining division for Paradies Lagardere. Some eateries have limited menus due to a reduction in staff and to allow social distancing.
Those who are traveling for the first time since the pandemic started will find that airlines require passengers to wear masks, and the airport is strongly recommending that passengers wear them even before they board planes.
The federal government on Thursday issued guidance saying airline travelers should wear masks. A new public health guidance document released by U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao says "Airlines and airports are strongly encouraged to require that everyone correctly wear a mask" -- but the federal government itself stopped short of requiring masks during air travel.
Atlanta airport officials have said they are limited in what they can require due to Gov. Brian Kemp's executive order, which does not require masks and suspends enforcement of any local ordinance or order that is more or less restrictive.
The mayor of Savannah, however, issued an emergency order this week requiring masks in public places, setting up a potential showdown with Kemp.
“We are hopeful that, [like] many airports in the country, we may have the opportunity to require masks when you enter the building,” Selden said.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is weighing the matter, but said Thursday during a briefing to City Council that she “wanted to give a bit of time to monitor what happens with the Savannah order, because I don’t want to do something that’s not going to be enforceable.”
She added that having police enforce such an ordinance would be a”further stretch of our resources,” but added that, with or without an order, people “most certainly should” wear a mask.
TSA travel tips
- Instead of handing your boarding pass to a TSA officer at the travel document podium, place it on the boarding pass reader. After scanning, hold it toward the TSA officer to allow the officer to visually inspect it.
- If you bring food for your trip, separate food for X-ray screening and put carry-on food items into a bin. TSA recommends packing the food in a clear plastic bag. TSA PreCheck members do not need to remove items from their bags.
- Passengers may bring one liquid hand sanitizer container, up to 12 oz. per passenger, in carry-on bags. Remove the large hand sanitizer from your carry-on bag and place it in a bin for additional screening, which may take extra time.
About the Author
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com