The Labor Day weekend is starting, the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, and travelers are flying out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which has furiously prepared for an uptick in passengers.
The airport has installed germ-zapping tech on escalators, placed the now-ubiquitous social distancing signs on floors and throughout terminals and has workers scrubbing windows and surfaces.
Sky Harbor has been getting busier every month since April, spokesperson Heather Shelbrack said. The pandemic, with more than 200,000 coronavirus cases in Arizona and has devastated the airline industry.
The airport does not have passenger data yet for September, but Shelbrack said data shows the percent of travelers in July was down about 64% compared to last year.
“That’s less than we’ve been down the past few months,” she said. “For Labor Day, we are anticipating being busier than we have been over the past couple weeks.”
Nelli Kaplunskaya and Alex Sturwold, who are moving to Arizona from Chicago, have flown quite a bit since the pandemic. They notice a recent uptick in fliers.
“At the beginning, there weren’t many people flying, Kaplunskaya said. On Thursday, their flight was fuller.
“We’re thinking it is probably because of the holiday weekend,” she said.
They have felt safe flying but take precautions on every flight, such as wiping seatbelts and headrests and sanitizing their hands often.
“Every time I walk into the airport, I pretty much use hand sanitizers anywhere I see them,” Sturwold said.
To keep passengers safe, Sky Harbor will maintain its safety and sanitation procedures, including encouraging social distancing of at least six feet when possible, Shelbrack said.
“Any traveler or anyone coming to the airport will need to wear a face covering and the airlines have also adopted similar face covering policies,” she said.
As an added adjustment to its pre-pandemic procedures, the TSA has granted an exemption on its carry-on rule for hand sanitizer. Most liquids are limited to 3-ounce containers but passengers are now allowed to bring one oversize hand sanitizer container of up to 12 ounces per person, Shelbrack said.
The airport is also encouraging people to use mobile boarding passes as much as possible to cut down on contact between travelers and employees.
Sky Harbor provides overhead announcements and scrolling messages on their flight information screens.
“We have physical distancing dots on the floor at the ticket counters, security checkpoints and baggage claim,” Shelbrack said. Restrooms have signs posted with numbers that people can call and text if they feel any area of the airport needs attention.
She said the airport has always “had very robust cleaning and sanitation efforts,” it has increased the frequency of cleaning in high touch areas since the global health pandemic.
In June, Sky Harbor “added a new set of handrail cleaners to complement its cleaning schedule,” Shelbrack said. The machine “cleans both sides of the escalator handrails simultaneously” making the cleaning process more efficient.
A few weeks ago, the airport installed seven UV-C LED light sterilizers to high trafficked escalators in Terminals 3 and 4.
The new technology is “known to kill 99.9% of disease-causing microorganisms using a germ destroying light,” Shelbrack said. It is always operating, tucked underneath the escalators’ handrails and, mostly, out of travelers’ sight.
“It provides a sanitary solution for highly touched handrails,” she said. It hasn’t been decided whether the new sterilizers will remain post-pandemic.
Sky Harbor has personal protective equipment available for sale in their shops. It even installed vending machines that sell protective equipment including, disposable and cloth masks, hand sanitizers, hygiene kits and gloves.
Passengers can check the airport’s website, which has a COVID-19 page, for information such as health and safety protocols, cancelled flights and what shops and restaurants are open.
Some ubiquitous travel advice is particularly pertinent during the pandemic:
For those traveling out of Sky Harbor this Labor Day, Shelbrack recommends people “give themselves enough time and check their flight status before coming to the airport in case there are any delays or cancellations.”
Photos by Allie Barton/Cronkite News