Category Archives: Air travel

Travel in a Time of COVID: Hospitality Industry Rises to Need to Keep Travelers Safe

Art gallery experience, adapted to coronavirus precautions. “Between Walls” exhibit by artist Laini Nemett opens at the Paul Mahder Gallery in Healdsburg, California © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

People are being urged not to travel now as COVID-19 cases are rising, but travelers who show judicious care and act responsibly should be able to continue to take trips, because the travel, tourism and hospitality industry has taken bold steps to keep travelers safe.

We realized we had a window of opportunity to travel to California in October because we take to heart Dr. Fauci’s warning about travel during fall and winter when the weather gets cold (coronavirus lingers longer in cold air), there are fewer opportunities to do meals and congregate outside, and the numbers of infections have spiked, especially in states that have not taken seriously the necessary measures to contract the virus (just as he predicted).

Indeed, the spike in cases as the winter holidays approach, is horrifying and I would avoid traveling at any distance during these concentrated times, especially if travel involves going through states and destinations that have been so cavalier about containing the coronavirus. So we chose our itinerary with great deliberate care and intention, as well as showing the consideration and personal responsibility that all travelers should exercise.

And we are still planning to bike and hike in fall, ski and snowshoe in winter, and looking forward to traveling in spring when I expect a new Biden administration to do a better job of controlling the spread (if 95 percent of Americans would just wear a damn mask, the spread would be contained), when there will be more likelihood of treatments and perhaps even vaccines. (Indeed, RV vacation companies are doing gang-busters business and Tracks & Trails has made Dec. 15 a hard deadline for booking summer 2021 trips.)

RVs and campers are all the rage. RV vacation companies are taking bookings now for next summer © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It would have been better – and likely tens of thousands of lives would have been saved and millions avoid long-term health issues – if the federal government had been more honest that COVID-19 would be a problem for a year or two, not two weeks or months (“Churches open by Easter!”), because businesses, infrastructure, and families would have made the necessary investments (even just wearing masks and having adequate PPE, while stores, restaurants, schools, offices and factories would have made proper changes), and people would have felt much more confident to get out and about.

The travel industry, facing existential crisis since these are the most face-to-face, people-to-people enterprises (airlines, restaurants and hotels are more than 50% percent down in business and unemployment is epidemic, especially among women who predominant in these fields), has been a model to make the necessary changes.

And that is what we experienced, pretty much going through the entire travel and tourism infrastructure that comprises a long-distance trip: airport, airline, car rental, AirBnB, hotel, restaurant, art gallery, vineyards, bike rental (Laini was disappointed with some elements of the bike rental), tennis, pool. We thoroughly enjoyed all of Sonoma’s delights – vineyards and wine-tastings, hiking along the Pacific Coast, beaches, even taking advantage of outdoor dining at a couple of restaurants, with the piece de resistance, an getaway adventure to Death Valley National Park (great vast open spaces, but still, everyone put their masks up on hikes when coming upon other hikers) which involved AirBnB and hotel accommodations and restaurants.

Wine tasting at Imagery in Sonoma. Timed reservations are required; capacity is controlled; tables are separated, and servers wear masks.

The point being that both sides of the equation, the travel purveyors (transportation, accommodations, dining, attractions) have to be responsible, but so do the travelers.

That begins with the planning.

We felt comfortable planning a trip to California, a state which was hit early but hard by the coronavirus, but, especially in San Francisco’s environs, has acted very responsibly since and gotten its infection rate down. I frankly wouldn’t have considered going to a place which has been cavalier, even arrogant or dismissive of protecting residents and visitors, politicizing the very notion of public health, and where, sadly, the infection rates are skyrocketing (South Dakota is a key one).

We quarantined ourselves for two weeks before traveling and each of us took COVID-19 tests (readily available in New York State for free) in time to have the results back when we departed.

We chose our flying route – airport and airline – with deliberate care.

Road Trip! – Laini double-checked with Dollar Rent-a-Car that the vehicle had been COVID-19 sanitized when picked it up at San Francisco Airport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Laini booked a car rental from Dollar which promised COVID-19 sanitizing (the car rentals are connected to the air terminal by AirTrain, which is preferable to a shuttle bus, which was almost empty).

She booked an AirBnB for one night at Death Valley (originally it was for all three nights, but we realized we needed to be inside the park rather than more than half-hour drive outside), and we used hotels.com to book one of the few hotels in the park. She interrogated the Ranch at the Oasis, where we stayed a delightful two nights, to insure that they sanitized the room and left it vacant for 24 hours before the next guest arrived, that we didn’t have to go up in an elevator or go through a lobby, and could dine outside.

Prepare in advance: cooking dinner at our AirBnB, Design2Death, in Beatty just outside Death Valley National Park with groceries we brought with us © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We brought a lot of our own groceries (David baked sour dough bread) to cook dinner at the AirBnB as well as for breakfast and for picnic lunches for the remaining time (they located a popular grocery store, Carroll’s, en route to Death Valley, which had received rave s for its blue-cheese dressing); we ordered take out dinner (espresso rubbed steak!) from the Ranch’s restaurant and ate it on the outdoor terrace one night, and dined on the outdoor patio at the Inn at the Oasis’s fine dining restaurant the next.

The timing of the trip wasn’t just because I considered this a window of opportunity that would be shuttered for six months, but because we had a special event: to attend Laini’s opening of her art exhibit, “Between Walls” (on through December 20) at the Paul Mahder Gallery in Healdsburg (paulmahdergallery.com).

Wear a mask! Healdsburg, a popular town for tourism, has adapted itself to COVID-19 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Healdsburg is a wonderfully vibrant town, culturally rich with some 25 art galleries and a food-and-wine haven with marvelous restaurants and 30 wine-tasting rooms (we loved our lunch at Bargas, and our dinner at the H2Hotel restaurant, with gorgeous outdoor seating areas), set around a lovely village square.

Healdsburg, which like Sonoma, depends on tourism, has taken public health precautions very seriously:  signs say you will be fined if you don’t wear a mask, and sanitizing stations at the crosswalks. Restaurants are organized for take-out and outdoor dining (space heaters available), menus are either disposable or can be wiped off; the retail stores have sanitizing stations, require masks, limit capacity and kept their doors open for added ventilation. The same for the art galleries.

Indeed, art and wine come together – there is a wine-tasting semi-outside room at the Paul Mahder Gallery (fun fact: it boasts the largest moss wall in America) and the gallery itself is very large, well ventilated, with mask-wearing required.

We had traveled extensively through New York State, camping, hiking (Letchworth State Park, North-South Campground, the Adirondacks), biking rail-trails (Mohawk Trail, the emerging Empire State Trail Network), so were aware of the precautions that were being taken even in outdoor milieus to protect public health.

At each of the places we visited in California, which like New York, has mobilized to contain the coronavirus and, at least in the San Francisco environs, gotten huge buy-in from the community – farmers market, restaurants, galleries, stores – not only sanitizer, mandated mask-wearing, social distancing – and to minimize transactions to reduce in face-to-face interactions.

The Kortum Trail is such a popular hike that even being outside on the Pacific coast, you need to put a mask on when others approach © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

We had hand-sanitizer at the ready for when we had to fill up at gas stations or pick up food.

I felt comfortable booking a stay in a hotel because I have been following the hotel industry’s protocols that have been put into place, because the industry, facing existential crisis, is aware that people have to feel confident to travel.

“Through our Safe Stay initiative, hotels have enhanced our already rigorous cleaning protocols to be more transparent and give travelers even more peace of mind,” said Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. (See: www.ahla.com/safestay).

We booked our stay at the Ranch at Death Valley over hotels.com (I’m a regular; Laini likes booking.com) – one of two hotels at the Oasis at Death Valley which date back to the beginning of tourism in Death Valley (www.oasisatdeathvalley.com).  

Hotels.com states at its website (while also advising travelers to “check government advisories before booking and traveling”),  now includes “COVID-19 Hygiene and Cleanliess” list on property pages:

Travel with peace of mind. We’ve made changes to allow hundreds of thousands of properties to add their hygiene and cleanliness details to the Hotels.com site, so you can make the right choice for your stay.

Enhanced health and safety measures

Look out for “COVID-19 Hygiene and Cleanliness” on the property pages to find information on enhanced health and safety, such as:

Hygiene and Sanitization • Property is cleaned with disinfectant • Commonly touched surfaces are cleaned with disinfectant • Gap period enforced between guest stays
Social distancing • Contactless check-in and check-out available • Shield between guests and staff in main contact areas • Social distancing measures are in place
Essentials at the property • Guests are provided with free hand sanitizer • Masks and gloves are available to guests • Individually wrapped food items available
Official health standards • Property adheres to corporate/organizational sanitization guidelines

“COVID-19 hygiene and cleanliness measures vary by property. Please check the relevant section of the property pages when searching for your stay.”

Laini went a step further and called the hotel directly to confirm that they sanitize the room and leave it empty for 24 hours before arrival, and chose a room where we didn’t need to go through a lobby or ride up an elevator. The Ranch is a sprawling-style resort with low buildings, rather than one large high-rise. (We were really surprised by the number of guests at the hotel, judging by how full the parking lots were in both the Ranch and the Inn, as well as the number of campers and RVs throughout the park.)

Dining outside on the terrace at the Ranch at the Oasis in Death Valley © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Many destinations (like Hawaii and Maine) had been requiring 14-day quarantine for out-of-state tourists, but now are accepting COVID-19 test results in place of the quarantine. Hawaii is making rapid testing available to visitors. New York State, trying to tamp down a new spike in infections and responding to the surge throughout the country, now requires everyone (including New Yorkers) who have been out of state for more than 24 hours (except for the contiguous states of New Jersey, Connecticut) to get tested before they come back, self-quarantine for three days after arriving in New York, and get a COVID test on the fourth day (otherwise, self-quarantine for 14 days).

Flying from Albany Airport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

Had the federal government been honest and told businesses that the risk would be one or two years, they would have invested in the changes, and public health protocols would have been as accepted and routine as the anti-terror security protocols after 9/11, instead of being politicized and tribal.

Look at Hawaii. As the New York Times reported,  instead of quarantine, the islands accept a preflight coronavirus test, processed by specially certified laboratories and trusted testing and travel partners including some airlines.

“Hawaii is at the vanguard of what travel will look like for the next year or so as we reopen,” said Avi Mannis, senior vice president of marketing at Hawaiian Airlines. Hawaiian Air is one of a few airlines that began offering pre-travel Covid-19 tests in October.

“In some markets, especially for international travel, until a vaccine is more widely available, testing will become part of the norm,” said Aaron McMillan, United’s managing director of operations policy and support. “What the data suggests so far is that here in Hawaii, testing has been the key to safely reopening. We now understand the data and the importance of testing. Testing provides a high level of protection for visitors, staff and residents.”

Upon arrival back at Albany airport, we were greeted by National Guardsmen who handed us a form to fill out for contact tracing and notifying us of the self-quarantine and testing requirements.

See also:

Travel in a Time of COVID: We’re Getting on a Jet Plane…

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Travel in a Time of COVID: We’re Getting on a Jet Plane….

Onboard our Delta flight to San Francisco, with plenty of spacing in the seats and masks on © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Who would imagine that going to airport would be adventure requiring intense planning beyond packing to fit a carry-on? – the decision of which airlines keep the middle seat empty and have a high rating in COVID-19 procedures, routing (direct, or what airport and for how long to lay over?) self-driving and long-term parking over Uber or taxi service?; masks, face shields, wipes, sanitizer, food and a water bottle (refilled after going through security) so you don’t have to buy at the airport.

With all these considerations in mind for a trip to San Francisco (a calculation in itself, taking into consideration infection rates at the destination, the confidence that California, hit early and hard by the coronavirus, is taking COVID-19 mitigation seriously, and seeing the timing, in October, as a window-of-opportunity before a likely lockdown in fall and winter as infection rates re-surge), we decided to fly out of Albany airport (small compared to flying out of JFK) on Delta, which scored extremely high marks for its new COVID-19 safety standards and policies.

It also afforded us the ability to drive our car, park in the long-term lot just a few minutes walk to the terminal and avoid any car service or shuttle bus.

After reading what the airlines are doing to keep passengers safe – including HEPA filtration and ventilation systems on par with hospitals (health tip: this means you need to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and avoid getting headache or nauseous) – I was more concerned about going through the airport itself and security.

The choice to fly Delta from Albany (versus JetBlue out of JFK) meant a layover at Detroit, a city and state that has seen a surge of infections. I actually called to find out if there were numbers of cases traced back to the airport (I was told to check the CDC). I was told the airport takes every precaution with its workers.

Arriving at Albany airport for our flight to San Francisco. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive at Albany Airport in plenty of time for our 12:50 pm flight. There is hardly anyone around. We wait outside for David to park the car. Inside, there are sanitizing stations everywhere. The restrooms are extremely clean. There is hardly anyone going through security so we breeze through, following the marked-off places on the floor. All the airport and TSA personnel are wearing masks and gloves and most are behind plexiglass shields. We drop our mask just long enough for the TSA agent to check face to photo.

We get our seats at the gate – people are sitting one to a row on this small (2×2 seating) aircraft to Detroit; the flight from Detroit to San Francisco is 3 x 3, with the middle seat kept empty.

As we enter the plane, we are handed a sanitizer packet.

The new safety speech (fasten your seatbelt, your life preserver is under your seat, in the event of loss of pressure, a mask…) now features new safety protocol, delivered with cheery smiles which, like the traditional safety speech, makes it all routine and not alarming at all. “Wear your face mask over nose and mouth… underneath these masks, we assure you we are still smiling.”

We are told about the “new standard of health and cleanliness” – high grade ventilation, hospital-grade filter, all surfaces sanitized prior to each flight.

During the flight, just 1 hour, 19 minutes to Detroit, the flight attendants in masks and gloves come by with a plastic bag filled with packaged snacks (biscotti, cheese bits, bottle of water) and a Purell packet and a notice about supporting one of Delta’s sponsored charities, for breast cancer (on the next flight, the safety video features a split screen showcasing Delta’s support of Habitat for Humanity, done extremely well). “We are excited to see the world together again,” it ends.

We aren’t restricted in terms of going to the restroom and there never is a line.

Deplaning isn’t a wild scramble either. We are told to wait until the passengers in front have taken their items and moved out (I would suggest they unload from the front and middle, so two sets of passengers can leave at the same time, and to let the people making connecting flights leave first) to preserve social distancing.

At Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, a major hub airport, there are a surprising number of people (at least compared to Albany) but not nearly the crowds of normal times. Traveling by air is remarkably unharried © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, a major hub airport there are a surprising number of people (at least compared to Albany) but not nearly the crowds of normal times (DTW handled 36 million passengers in 2019, 1,100 flights a day to and from 140 destinations on four continents). Indeed, there is a sense of “new normal,” a new routine.

Everyone is wearing masks; seats at the gates are marked off for social distancing, food services take orders and hand them out by number.  In fact, while airports in these days of mass travel, are typically hectic, frenetic, frantic places, it feels amazingly calm, refined, a throwback to the old days when air travel was special. And the attitude of the airport and airline personnel is calmer, welcoming, even appreciative of having passengers.

The Delta agent at the gate at Detroit who gives us our seat assignments to San Francisco says that they get as many free COVID tests as they need, and if they aren’t feeling well, if they have a cough, they are told to stay home.

On board, we are handed a packet of sanitizer as we enter and seated spaced apart, and I could feel the enhanced ventilation (tip: drink plenty of water because you feel your essence sucked out of you). We used the sanitizing cloth over the chair, hand rests, monitor, tray, headrest (for our own peace of mind).

On this flight, about 5 hours (two movies worth!) we are again handed a plastic bag with snacks and Purell.

Riding the air train into the San Francisco airport terminal from the car rental drop-off © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Delta has taken major steps (some you may not even realize) – in fact, more than 100 measures – to keep passengers safe and equally as importantly, give passengers confidence to fly, which it calls the Delta CareStandard intended to provide layers of protection (see: (see: https://news.delta.com/delta-keeping-you-safe-blocked-middle-seats-hospital-grade-air-filters-and-more):

In the airport: There is touchless check-in(download the Fly Delta app to access a digital boarding pass); check-in lobbies, self-service kiosks, gate counters and baggage claim are thoroughly wiped down during the day. Electrostatic cleaning, used on the aircraft, is also deployed in key airport locations. There are plexiglass shields at check in counters, Delta Sky Clubs and gate counters across the globe; social distancing markers at check-in, jet bridges; hand sanitizer stations are ubiquitous.

San Francisco airport at 11 am is uncrowded. Airlines do as much as possible with as little contact as possible © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In partnership with the Transportation Security Administration, Delta is rolling out antimicrobial bins that prevent the growth of a broad spectrum of bacteria to automated screening lanes in Atlanta, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Los Angeles, New York-LaGuardia and New York-JFK, with other markets coming online.

Customer care kits may be obtained at Delta ticket counters and gates with sanitzer wipe, mask and informational card.

Air filtering systems that pump outside air into jetbridges and parked aircraft are being replaced with LEED Platinum MERV14 filters.

Onboard experience: Delta was the first US airline where customers can find hand sanitzer stations near boarding door and bathrooms on every aircraft. The boarding process is adjusted to encourage more space – boarding all flights from back to front so dcustomers shouldn’t need to pass one another, and limiting boarding groups to 10 or fewer.

Through at least Jan. 6, 2021, Delta is blocking the selection of middle seats and limiting the number of customers preflight.

In order to accommodate extra spacing, Delta may put higher-capacity aircraft or add flights on routes where there is increased demand .

Every flight is thoroughly sanitized prior to boarding using electrostatic sprayers, then cleaning crews use high-grade disinfectant to wipe down personal and common areas of the cabin.  “If an aircraft doesn’t pass our spot check before you board, our teams are encouraged to hold the flight and call back the cleaning crew.”

The air on all aircraft is completely recirculated 10 to 30 times per hour with fresh, outside air through industrial-grade HEPA filters, which extract more than 99.99% of particles, including viruses.

The airline is installing Vyv antimicrobial LED lighting above high-touch sinks and countertops in lavatories on select aircraft to continually reduce the growth of bacteria – one of many clean innovations that Delta is bringing onboard.

“The (travel) experience is a very comfortable, a very safe experience, we have taken actions, even above and beyond what the CDC has recommended to ensure safety,” Delta’s Chief Customer Experience Officer Bill Lentsch told ABC News. 

Delta has formed a new Global Cleanliness Division which is working with teams across the airline and partners like Mayo Clinic and RB (makers of Lysol)

In a similar vein, United Airlines assures its passengers, “We know travel looks a little different these days, but rest assured that we’re here for you every step of the way. Throughout your journey, we’re putting safety and cleanliness at the forefront of your travel experience through our United CleanPlus℠ program and by teaming up with Clorox. We’re also working closely with the experts at Cleveland Clinic to advise us on enhancing safety measures.”

Actually, it is remarkable how “normal” these new procedures seem.

A notable absence of people on line to go through security at San Francisco airport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, according to a Pentagon study, since airlines began putting these measures in place in spring 2020, “there has been little evidence to date of onboard disease transmission,” according to researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Their report notes that when the “highly effective” ventilation systems are running from boarding until deplaning the risk of exposure falls below that of activities like grocery shopping and dining out.

As reported by Ellen Mitchell in The Hill, the risk of contracting an airborne virus such as COVID-19 is very low when traveling aboard a large commercial aircraft when most people are wearing masks, the Defense Department-led study concluded.

The study found that due to air particle filtration and ventilation systems, 99.99 percent of particles released into the air from an infected person wearing a mask were removed from the aircraft cabin within six minutes of being released.

Even if someone were sitting directly next to an infected passenger, 99.7 percent of the virus particles around them would be removed in that timeframe, the study found. That’s roughly 15 times faster than the particles would take to dissipate in an average home and five to six times faster than in a modern hospital, Mitchell reported.

The study concluded that it was “extremely unlikely” passengers would be exposed to an infectious dose of COVID-19 while on a 12-hour flight. (See: thehill.com/policy/defense/521303-pentagon-study-low-risk-of-contracting-covid-19-on-planes-with-passengers)

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures