Getting through security is a breeze. The terminal and concourses are still eerily quiet for long stretches of the day. And strange times have brought new amenities, including vending machines and kiosks that sell face masks.
But for all the signs of the coronavirus pandemic’s continuing disruption of air travel, crowds are quickly growing inside Denver International Airport — and aboard planes — as more people venture farther from home this summer.
“It’s actually surprising how full the planes are,” said Brieanna Martinez, as she waited with her two young children on Concourse B this week for a connecting United flight back home to Washington state. “Because we’ve had so many flights that were canceled, you would think they wouldn’t be as full as they are. Almost every seat was taken, (including) the majority of the middle ones.”
A tentative, partial air-travel rebound is well underway, even as daily COVID-19 case counts grow in several states, including Colorado. Those trends introduce plenty of uncertainty — and just this week, United Airlines, which relies heavily on still-depressed business travel, announced tens of thousands of job cuts as it prepares for potential hiccups ahead.
While the United-dominated Concourse B was sparsely populated at DIA Tuesday afternoon amid a lull in flights, it was a different story over on Concourse C.
Home to Southwest Airlines and smaller carriers, that concourse had a cluster of incoming and departing flights overlapping around 3 p.m., resulting in foot traffic levels that would’ve seemed more typical before the pandemic.
The levels of vigilance displayed by passengers varied. Well over 90% wore face coverings, as now required by DIA for everyone inside its buildings and by airlines aboard planes. But some removed them or lowered them while seated near gates, even if they were near other people.
Airlines have adjusted boarding policies to encourage 6-foot social distancing. United is boarding rows in reverse order rather than by group; Southwest is lining up 10 passengers at a time instead of calling up two groups of 30 concurrently. DIA and airlines often provide disinfectant wipes to passengers as they enter planes.
But those efforts leave plenty of risks, public health experts say. Several passengers told The Denver Post they were mindful of them, especially as flying has become more cumbersome.
“It’s definitely harder now because of the masks, and airports are still pretty congested,” said Chuck Dahlman, 72, who was returning home to Westminster after a trip to Las Vegas with his wife, Jan. “Denver’s airport is pretty wide open. Las Vegas, especially (the Southwest terminal), it was pretty congested.”
Jan Dahlman, 74, said she appreciated that Southwest, unlike some airlines, was still keeping middle seats unoccupied, except for families sitting together.
DIA is ahead of other big airports
Air traffic through DIA is still anything but normal, with nearly 200,000 people passing through its security screening areas last week — down 65% compared to the same week last year — to catch about half as many flights as usually scheduled.
But that was a significant improvement from early April, when the same checkpoint measures were down nearly 95%, according to the airport. In fact, DIA, normally the nation’s fifth-busiest airport, is among those that have been recovering the fastest.
In June, its security-checkpoint counts, which largely reflect people starting their journeys here rather than connecting to another destination, were second only to those at Los Angeles International Airport, DIA says. And it ranked third in the number of scheduled flights, behind Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta, as DIA’s extensive domestic connecting network has recovered more quickly than the international routes relied upon by coastal hubs.
DIA expects more crowds this month, typically its busiest each year. Leisure travel is surging as people take vacations and travel to visit family and friends.
Martinez, 37, and her children traveled across the country last month to spend three weeks visiting her mother near Bangor, Maine. Each direction required three flights, with unpredictable flight schedules resulting in changing plans, along with longer-than-usual layovers in Denver.
She was midway through an eight-hour wait between flights Tuesday afternoon, posted up at an empty unused gate area in B while Sebastian, 3, and Zoe, 6, played on the carpet. When they flew East in mid-June, their Denver stopover was 18 hours and required a hotel stay, she said.
“We’ve been taking precautions and being very careful,” Martinez said. “I told my mom, no touching — no hugs — until we get to the house and take showers,” since they were coming from Washington, one of the early hot-spot states.
Wearing a mask for so long while traveling is uncomfortable, she said, and it’s hard to get her 3-year-old son to keep his on. But she added: “Everybody just has to understand, to travel you have to wear it.”
Maria Cantú and her family, headed home to Mexico City, wore masks but also took an extra step by donning ballcaps with drop-down plastic shields.
They’d been staying at their vacation home in Beaver Creek since early June. The pandemic prompted them to head to Colorado earlier than usual for their typical summer mountain stay, but they decided to head home as the Vail Valley was growing crowded, Cantú said. Mexico also has begun relaxing its public health restrictions.
While wary of crowds, Cantú said fears were more about perception than reality. She felt prepared.
“Even if the plane is crowded,” she said, “I don’t think you feel unsafe.”
More inconveniences amid health risks
Post readers have frequently reported concerns about travelers and even airport employees not wearing masks. DIA spokesperson Emily Williams said airport representatives nudge those without them and ask employees to police each other, but they can’t monitor everyone in such a large space.
The airport has tried out different messaging on its video screens, taking a softer tack lately by calling mask-wearing “the right thing to do.”
Another recent complaint centered on DIA’s disabling of water fountains, an inconvenience for thirsty travelers at night after most food stands have closed. DIA’s aim is to reduce germ-spreading, and in that vein it also has turned off electric hand dryers in bathrooms.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says airplanes pose less of a health risk than they might appear. But proximity is tight even in the best of circumstances, and the risks begin inside the airport — though DIA is trying to encourage social distancing at all steps and has installed 100 hand sanitizer dispensers.
“Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces,” the CDC says in its advisory on travel during the pandemic. “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours.
“This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.”
The Dahlmans said they took the risks seriously but felt safe during their long weekend in Las Vegas. It was a full-circle trip of sorts: They were staying at a casino there on March 17 when the Nevada governor ordered the shutdown of gambling, bars and restaurants.
This time, Sin City was different. Casinos fearful of another state-ordered shutdown — Nevada’s case counts rose sharply in June — were strictly enforcing mask and social-distancing requirements, Jan Dahlman said, and hand sanitizer was widely available.
Chuck Dahlman said he wouldn’t hesitate to fly again, but Jan said they are taking extra precautions.
“We will self-quarantine for probably 10 days from our grandchildren,” she said.
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