How not to get infected at the airport

How not to get infected at the airport

Don’t get infected at the airport. Scientists say airports are more dangerous than airplanes – at least when it comes to your chances of getting sick with the coronavirus.

After all, airports are filled with passengers who may not practice social distancing or even wear a mask. It might be difficult to avoid a COVID-19 infection at the airport.

So if you’re about to take a trip, how do you protect yourself? Fred Siegel wants to know. He recently flew from Phoenix to Newark, New Jersey, with his wife for a family emergency. He hoped his fellow passengers would follow all the mask rules. They didn’t.

“There were many people in the terminal not wearing masks at all,” he recalls. “Those who did sometimes wore them improperly with their noses fully exposed.”

The experience left Siegel, a former state employee, feeling dangerously exposed. He and his wife wore two masks each, just to make sure they didn’t get infected. Fortunately, they stayed healthy.

There are several proven ways to avoid a COVID-19 infection when you transit through an airport. They include fully researching the risks, looking for the telltale signs of an unclean airport, and taking the right precautions.

Coronavirus risks at the airport are real

But Siegel’s experience shines a light on one of the most overlooked aspects of travel. While airlines have received a lot of attention for their cleaning initiatives, the risk of transiting through an airport has been largely overlooked by travelers, but fortunately not by my USA TODAY colleagues.

And while cleaning robots, COVID-sniffing dogs and extreme cleaning look good on paper, it’s far likelier that during the busy holiday travel season, you’ll end up like Siegel – stuck in a crowd of other passengers who may or may not believe the coronavirus is a hoax.

“Smart travelers should not rely on airports for their disinfection protocols,” says Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, which provides medical, security, travel risk and crisis management. “They should be prepared to protect themselves from the airport to plane by adhering to the basic guidelines of masking, hand sanitizing, and physical distancing.”

Know the risks before you go

That’s the advice of Lori Calavan, Allianz Partners’ senior medical consultant. She recommends checking the Safe Travel Barometer website. “It’s a comprehensive database that lists current COVID-19 traveler health and safety protocols,” she says. Its airport scores are based on an independent audit of more than 200 airports and 29 traveler health and safety measures. It ranks Atlanta, New York and Boston as the safest in the U.S.

The Transportation Security Administration also publishes a list of airports that shows how many employees have tested positive at each one. If its agents are showing up to work with an infection, that might be a sign to be extra vigilant.

Worried about getting infected at the airport? Do your research

Don’t take someone else’s word when it comes to avoiding a COVID-19 infection at the airport. Find out for yourself, says Robert Quigley, global medical director of International SOS, which advises companies on health threats. “Before your departure, look into the risk mitigation efforts your departure and arrival airports have implemented during the pandemic,” he says. “And ensure you’re comfortable with them as they’ll vary from location to location.” Put differently, the scorecards are nice, but nothing beats doing your own research.

Look for this before you go

How do you know if a surface is properly cleaned? Sean McCrady, national service line manager of safety science firm UL’s healthy buildings group, says you can tell. Be on the lookout for signage that describes the cleaning process in detail. It might include the process or the type of cleaners used. A two-step process with soap and water, followed by disinfectants, is ideal.

“Staff should be making the rounds and cleaning frequently throughout the workday,” he adds. “Surfaces should appear visibly clean.”

Be careful out there

You know those cleaning robots some airports are using? Christopher Andrews is one of the guys behind them. He’s the director of mobility and innovation at engineering development firm Pratt Miller. And he says if you want to avoid a COVID-19 infection at the airport, there’s no substitute for taking precautions.

“While our robot can minimize the risk of COVID-19 transfer from surfaces, I believe you also should protect yourself from person to person transfer – especially if you’re in a high-risk category,” he says. Andrews recommends wearing a KN95 mask and carrying disinfecting spray or wipes to clean your hands if you contact a surface.

“Assume any surface you touch could be infected,” he says. “And keep your distance from crowds to minimize risk.”

Not sure? Clean it yourself

Don’t just carry disinfecting spray or wipes. Use them, says Erica James, a travel advisor from Nashville.

“I don’t assume anything is cleaned,” she says. “I feel it’s my responsibility to ensure that my area is cleaned and maintained to the best of my ability.”

She packs her own soap (Dial, because that’s what surgeons use to scrub), hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. And she sanitizes everything – seats, tables, armrests, even TV screens. James says it’s great if the airport cleans all the surfaces before she arrives. But at a time like this, there’s no harm in doing it again.

Make it quick and keep your distance

Do your best to minimize the amount of time you’re in the terminal, says Robert Glatter, an emergency physician, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. And stay away from other passengers.

“It’s the amount of time you spend inside the airport before and after the flight that are most critical,” he says. “This also includes airport lounges, which are problematic due to the sheer number of travelers that you have the potential to interface with during your time spent eating, drinking, and simply waiting. It’s the number of people who don’t wear a mask, don’t wash their hands, and don’t physically distance that places you at most risk for acquiring the virus.”

These steps for avoiding a COVID-19 infection at the airport may sound like a lot, but they’re similar to the precautions you probably already take when you go to the grocery store or school. If avoiding a COVID-19 infection at the airport seems like too much trouble, don’t worry. You can always celebrate the holidays at home this year.

These are the safest major American airports

Safe Travel Barometer grades airports based on COVID-19 safety protocols, traveler convenience, customer service and traveler experience and awards each a score ranging from 1 to 5. The specific COVID-19 criteria include the availability of contactless check-in and baggage drop, on-site COVID-19 testing and whether travelers and employees wear masks.

Here are the top 10:

  1. Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). 4.3
  2. John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York (JFK): 4.3
  3. Boston-Logan International Airport (BOS): 4.3
  4. Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL): 4.2
  5. Philadelphia International Airport (PHL): 4.2
  6. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): 4.2
  7. San Francisco International Airport (SFO): 4.2
  8. O’Hare International Airport, Chicago (ORD): 4.2
  9. Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW): 4.1
  10. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA): 3.9

Source: Safe Travel Barometer

Posted in On Travel Tagged , , ,

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Global Rescue

Global Rescue is the world’s leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services. Founded in 2004, Global Rescue has exclusive relationships with the Johns Hopkins Emergency Medicine Division of Special Operations and Elite Medical Group. Global Rescue provides best-in-class services that identify, monitor and respond to client medical and security crises. Learn more about Global Rescue.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by battleface

At battleface, we deliver insurance that doesn’t quit when circumstances change. We provide specialty travel insurance services and benefits to travelers visiting or working internationally, including in the world’s most hard to reach places. Currently selling in 54 countries and growing, our mission is to deliver simple solutions to travelers worldwide heading out on their next adventure.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Pomchies

Pomchies makes an array of functional products out of swimwear material -- from hair scrunchies to luggage tags to headbands and more. Forced to pivot in 2020, Pomchies started manufacturing masks and changed the entire trajectory of the business. With over 4 million masks in circulation and a strong demand, Pomchies is now one of the most popular mask companies in the United States. To view the entire product line or to learn more, visit

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by World Nomads

World Nomads travel insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers, to cover your trip essentials. Even if you run out of travel insurance or leave without it, World Nomads can cover you. We don't just keep you and your family protected, with us, you'll travel smarter and safer. Get more information at World Nomads.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International,, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.