While more people are flying, the experience may feel completely different to travelers with new safety protocols being implemented at airports and on planes. To get a better understanding of what the air experience is like these days, we spoke to two American Express Global Business Travel (GBT) employees – Patrick Doyle, a vice president and general manager in Canada, and Anne McElroy-Arnaud, global communications director – who both have recently returned from taking their first business trips in months.

Staying on top of the news

To feel more comfortable taking his first domestic flight in more than 100 days, Doyle did a lot of research, reading up the on the latest travel advisories and news.

“Information breeds confidence,” he said. “I’m not someone who takes many risks, but I was assured by having up-to-date information about my trip. Details like hotel-cleaning procedures, outdoor dining protocols, and transportation availability that may not have concerned me in the past now brought peace of mind.”

Because travel and health recommendations can change at any time, passengers should stay on top of the latest developments to make informed decisions and preparations – as McElroy-Arnaud did before taking her transatlantic trip in June.

“I was slightly nervous about getting into the U.S., then back into France due to changing travel restrictions. For weeks prior to the trip, I obsessively monitored government websites for any changes,” she said.

While initially flight information was only available on the airline or airport’s website, now there are information aggregators emerging for travelers that deliver supplier updates and travel advisories in a single search portal.

GBT’s version, Travel Vitals™, launched this month. The briefing platform enables users to search and gather intelligence on every key touch point of their journey. Before booking or taking a trip, travelers can find out things like if a destination has quarantine measures in place, if face masks are required on a flight, and about a supplier’s safety, cleaning, and cancellation protocols.

Guidelines to protect passengers

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN aviation watchdog, recently released comprehensive safety guidelines for airlines, airports, and passengers to follow to protect travelers and minimize infection risks at every stage of air travel.

For example, in order to limit queues and crowds, ICAO advises travelers to come to the airport “ready to fly” by completing the check-in process before arrival and having mobile boarding passes ready on their devices. It also encourages passengers to only bring onboard bags that can be stowed under the seat and for airlines to limit the use of overhead bins to facilitate a smooth boarding process with minimal physical contact.

In accordance with ICAO’s recommendations, you may experience more contactless technology at airports. While facial recognition technology already has been on the rise, in a post-COVID-19 world, you may see more of it to limit contact between staff and passengers.

You also may encounter pre-boarding infrared temperature checks, as Doyle did upon his arrival at Toronto Pearson International Airport. “The comfort of knowing all my fellow travelers passed this routine test outweighed any inconvenience I may have felt,” he said.

ICAO advises that any areas in the airport with potential for human contact and transmission are to be routinely cleaned and disinfected, and you can expect to see hand-sanitizer stations everywhere. TSA now allows passengers to pack up to 12-ounce bottles of disinfectant in their carry-on (up from the 3.4-ounce allowance) and jumbo-sized containers of antibacterial wipes.

The UN agency also recommends that masks are worn in airports and on flights. Airlines in America, a trade organization, recently announced that U.S. airlines potentially could ban travelers from future flights if they refuse to wear face coverings. McElroy-Arnaud says masks were required on her flight but was surprised to see that not everyone was wearing one in the Atlanta airport where she landed.

She also noted that everything is cleaner, especially in the airplane. “I got antiseptic wipes when boarding and used them to wipe down the seat back, armrests and tablet around me – but they were already pretty clean. The bathroom I was seated next to was disinfected very regularly – even if no one had used it since the last cleaning.”

When Doyle boarded his Air Canada flight, he received a personal care kit that included hand sanitizer, gloves, and water.

most modern aircraft have HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, which capture 99.9% of particulate matter from the air, including fungi, bacteria, and viruses. This helps reduce the possibility of most infectious diseases from spreading through the air.

What may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19, the CDC notes, is that it’s hard to practice social distancing on crowded flights.

That may not have been a problem on Doyle’s flight. According to the frequent business traveler, “There were only 15 people on my outbound Air Canada flight to Ottawa and about 35 on my return to Toronto, both well under the plane’s capacity.”

ICAO suggests airlines permit separated seating arrangements when occupancy allows it and that passengers stay in the assigned seat as much as possible. When available, it advises separate lavatories be used for passengers and crew members.

Because the agency also suggests that food and drinks services be limited or suspended, passengers may wish to bring their own snacks and drinks on board.

Doyle said that “meal and beverage services were eliminated but hardly missed” on his short-haul flight.

McElroy-Arnaud noted that after her international flight, the Air France flight attendant apologized for the fact that the service was not as “rich” as usual.

“Indeed, the drinks and meal came at the same time, rather than separately, and there was only one choice for the meal. But the service was absolutely was fine,” she said. “The flight staff was busy with all the extra cleaning they had to do but attentive, nonetheless. So no apologies necessary. We get it. We’re just happy to fly safely.”