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Gov. Inslee announces statewide approach to safe air travel during pandemic

In this Feb. 5, 2019, file photo, Alaska Airlines planes are parked at a gate area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

To keep air travel as safe as possible during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Inslee announced Thursday that new protocols will be in place at airports statewide, created in partnership with airlines, the ports, and the public.

“The steps we’re taking today are going to help those who do decide to fly during the pandemic,” Inslee said.

While the state and governor’s office have asked for a federal standard, Inslee said the Trump administration has failed to provide any uniform protocols.

The new protocols for Washington state airports will include face coverings or face masks to be worn in all areas “upstream of the TSA security line,” Inslee said. There will also be signage to indicate appropriate spacing for social distancing, protective barriers between travelers and workers, and increased sanitization. Inslee pointed out that many airlines are already following most, if not all, of these steps, but now the protocols will apply to all airports in Washington, including regional.

Sea-Tac Airport requiring all travelers, workers to wear masks 

“It truly is unprecedented times,” said Max Tidwell, vice president of safety and security for Alaska Airlines.

Alaska has implemented a layered approach of safety over the past seven months, Tidwell said, including required health agreements for all passengers, a “no mask, no travel” policy, and continuing to block center seats through the end of November. The company has also enhanced airport and aircraft cleaning protocols, working to provide fewer and fewer touchpoints through the help of technology.

“We also know that plans change, especially in this environment,” Tidwell said, which led Alaska to eliminate change fees permanently.

All of these safety efforts are to gain the confidence of travelers as more passengers choose to return to air travel in the coming weeks and months. Tidwell says the airline industry is working together to do what is right for the public, the industry, and the economy.

“The bottom line: Flying is safe and when our home state is ready to fly, our employees … are eager to welcome you back,” he said.

He also recognized that the pandemic is still ongoing and airlines and airports need to keep pushing to improve the safety for employees and passengers.

“We cannot let our guard down,” Tidwell added. “We have to make sure we continue to push and improve our procedures.”

At Delta, many of the same protocols are in place to protect passengers and employees. Tony Gonchar, regional vice president for Delta Air Lines, said they are the only airline blocking middle seats through the entire holiday season, through Jan. 6, 2021. Similar to Alaska, Delta has also increased aircraft cleaning procedures, and require customers and employees to wear masks when traveling, taking immediate action for anyone who fails to comply.

Gonchar added that Delta is hosting a pilot temperature screening for outbound passengers at Sea-Tac airport beginning Oct. 1. Anyone who registers a fever will be screened a second time. If a traveler’s temperature is still too high, they will be rebooked on a later flight or refunded, and placed on a health safety restriction list for 14 days.

Delta also has testing available for employees through onsite clinics, at home, and rapid tests in the employee airport lounge areas.

Lance Lyttle, managing director of the aviation division for the Port of Seattle, echoed the governor’s comments that a uniform, national approach is needed. In place of a national standard, however, local airports and ports are stepping up to ensure that the traveling public is safe and healthy.

According to passenger surveys, Lyttle says people think rapid testing for COVID-19 at airports would help increase their confidence in safe air travel, so the port is in conversations with vendors to find out if that is feasible to implement. Passengers have also indicated that they believe Sea-Tac is taking the necessary steps to protect customers and employees.

Passenger volume at Sea-Tac Airport reaches 53-year-low in April

For now, Lyttle says customers will have to get used to the “new normal of air travel,” which includes wearing face coverings, increased cleaning, signs for social distancing, and touchless technology.

“We are an aviation state, and we live to travel,” Inslee said. “I’m glad we’re all working together to make this a safer environment.”

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