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KCI, airlines take steps to mitigate COVID-19 risk

Pandemic travel
Posted at 1:00 PM, Nov 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-17 23:40:49-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — More than half of Americans plan to travel next week for Thanksgiving, according to a recent survey from Trip Advisor.

For some travelers, that will mean going to the airport in the middle of a pandemic.

"What we're saying is if you're ready to fly, we're ready for you," Joe McBride, a spokesman for the Kansas City Aviation Department, said.

That is the new marketing message at KCI, where as of September passenger traffic was down 60 percent compared to the same time period last year.

However, increases in travel are expected as the holiday season approaches.

First-time pandemic travelers will notice changes as soon as they set foot in terminals B and C.

Signs remind passengers to wear masks, and decals on the floor also encourage social distancing. About every 10 minutes, the booming voice of Dr. Rex Archer, Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department director, offers more hygiene reminders.

Custodial staff have also stepped up cleaning throughout the terminals.

The changes continue at security checkpoints, where staff members who interact with travelers wear both masks and face shields. Plastic bins, which already had anti-microbial technology, are wiped down with alcohol every two hours.

The Flight Itself

At the start of the pandemic, there was considerable concern about the risk of COVID-19 transmission on a plane.

However, additional research has shown that with certain safety measures in place, the risk is much lower than one might think.

One Department of Defense study completed on board a United Airlines flight concluded the risk of COVID-19 transmission through the air on a plane is "minimal" because of the ventilation systems on planes.

These systems include HEPA filters, which have been shown to filter out more than 99 percent of the particles that can spread COVID-19. Air in the cabin is replaced every few minutes with a mixture of filtered and fresh outside air.

"The friendly skies are safe," Kim Papineau, United Airlines Airport Operations Supervisor, said.

The 41 Action News Investigative Team got an exclusive look at the safety steps United has implemented.

Electrostatic sprayer
An electrostatic sprayer is used to fog the cabin after every flight.

It starts with the Clorox 360, an electrostatic sprayer used to fog the cabin and disinfect it after every single flight.

"It actively seeks out and disinfects everything from the tray tables to the window shades, everything in between," Papineau said.

As of this week, United is also applying an anti-microbial coating inside the plane every seven days.

Instead of offering traditional food and beverage services, flight attendants pass out plastic bags with snacks and water inside.

United snack bag
Pre-packaged food and water bags limit contact between flight attendants and passengers.

According to Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, all of the airlines are stepping up when it comes to safety.

"This is in their own self-interest. If people don't feel safe getting on an airplane, then they're not going to be traveling," Keyes said.

Keyes is about to embark on his first trip since the pandemic began. One safety measure bringing him comfort is the fact that masks will be required on board. According to a recent Washington Post article, more than 900 passengers have been banned from airlines including Delta, United and Alaska for refusing to wear masks.

Minimizing Risk at the Airport

For those who do plan to travel for the holidays, there are important steps to take to reduce risk.

Keyes said he plans to wear a KN95 mask and avoid eating or drinking while at the airport.

He's also steering clear of crowds.

"I'm going to be avoiding the sort of bunching that happens oftentimes at the gates," Keyes said. "I'm not going to be worried about being the first one on the plane."

Maintaining social distance in lines and throughout the terminal is key.

Unfortunately, there are some places where that's simply not possible.

For example, think of the blue buses that shuttle passengers to and from the economy lot at KCI.

"You'd have maybe six people in a bus, if that, and it's just not practical, as much we'd love to," McBride said of proper social distancing on the vehicles.

The number of buses and drivers makes that option unfeasible.

All of the vehicles are sanitized throughout the day and receive deep cleans overnight.

McBride said that passengers uncomfortable with the number of people on board can tell the driver, who will make sure another bus comes around. The downside is there could be a wait, and passengers risk running into the same problem again.

Other considerations to take into account include if you or a loved one is at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, or if you have high anxiety about contracting it by flying.

"I don't think you should feel pressure to travel before you're ready, because I think travel is something that should add joy, not take away joy," Keyes said.

That's especially true for traveling during the holiday season.

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