- Safety is a growing concern as the number of people at airports steadily rises: In early August, more than 700,000 travelers passed through TSA, a significant increase from 87,000 people in April.
- Airports are implementing some low-tech safety measures, like protective plastic screens and new signage, to mitigate health risks and manage crowds.
- Additionally, airports are partnering with companies like StickerYou, QLess, and WhereiPark to create decals and signage, manage large security lines to protect their employees, and handle parking for unused rental fleets.
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How do you keep yourself safe while traveling these days? Travelers on social media report boarding planes with masks, gloves, and even full-body plastic coverings. Airlines have their own stipulations about cleanings and staff wearing masks while on duty (including, in JetBlue’s case, using an ultraviolet robot to sanitize in between flights).
But what about airports, those notoriously crowded, hectic public spaces where thousands of strangers have to come in close contact daily? COVID-19 has necessitated that small, private companies step in and provide a lot of formerly unconventional services to airports: finding parking for cars that aren’t being driven, pasting stickers everywhere to remind passengers to stay away from others, and keeping lines of people out of airports — atypical for a place where waiting in line is the main thing a traveler does.
According to the TSA, the number of people coming through airports in the US dropped from 1.2 million on March 16 to less than half a million on March 22. The numbers continued to drop steadily for the next month, bottoming out at a little more than 87,000 on April 14, 2020. For comparison, April 14, 2019 saw 2.2 million people put through TSA checkpoints in the US.
For better or for worse, many states in the US are now in some stage of reopening. With this comes an increase in travel, and the need for airports to mitigate becoming a viral hotspot. Many have had to improvise their own answers to the question of how, exactly, to do this, as the numbers of travelers has started ticking steadily upward: On August 13, 761,821 travellers were put through TSA, according to its website. That’s still significantly less than the same day saw in 2019 (2.6 million), but a big step up from 87,000 people in April.
Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) announced in March that it would be performing “on-site screening” of all passengers for coronavirus, something it’d put in place for international arrivals in January: taking temperatures, asking passengers if they felt sick, and having them fill out questionnaires. The move led to some snarls and delays at the airport: A spokesperson told Business Insider that despite the pandemic, DFW was one of the busiest airports in the world in May, June, and July.
Some are opting for low-tech solutions: Boston Logan announced new plastic screens in “high-traffic spaces” to protect employees, amongst other measures. Salt Lake City has said it was restricting entry into the airport to only employees or ticketed passengers. Phoenix now requires masks on the premises.
A spokesperson for the Orlando airport told Business Insider that it was managing crowds with new signage and screens around the terminal to remind passengers to keep their distance and wear a mask. Earlier in July, it also announced it was installing vending machines that would dispense personal protective equipment.
A representative for the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA), which runs O’Hare and Midway airports, told Business Insider that it’d had “hundreds of floor decals” printed “to remind passengers to maintain social distance and guide them how to form appropriate lines.” The San Francisco Airport also told Business Insider that it’d installed around 15,000 new physical-distancing markers.
The low-tech solution: signage
StickerYou, a 90-person, 10-year-old decal and professional sticker company who said its clients have included SpaceX, Google, and Home Depot, told Business Insider that it’s begun working with some airports around the US to enhance their signage. Originally, StickerYou set out to make customized decals for skateboarders, but found that small and medium-sized businesses, such as craft breweries, became its biggest clients. With the pandemic came requests from airports and hotels, a market segment that hadn’t previously been very open to them before.
“We pivoted to marketing to airports in March,” said Michael Ishak, vice president of sales at StickerYou. “When COVID-19 hit, we flipped to making floor decals and hand sanitizer labels.”
Airports requested custom decals to direct traffic, as well as wall stickers, window clings, and table and chair decals to keep people away from each other. Hotels, meanwhile, were ordering “seals” for rooms — stickers with perforations — that would be put across a door after it had been cleaned to show that the room hadn’t been tampered with. In the end, Ishak said, airports were ordering bigger sizes and more decals than they ever had before, all in the name of enforcing social distancing.
“There’s something to be said for having a more aggressive messaging,” Ishak said.
Managing long lines and crowds
Along with trying to keep passengers in the proper line, sanitized, and away from each other, there are also airport employees to worry about. QLess, a California company whose name is a play on “queue-less,” is a line-management software that said it’s now working with San Francisco and Denver to help keep the amount of time airport employees have to wait in line to a minimum. QLess launched in 2007, and said it now works with more than 1,000 companies and organizations around the world and claims that it’s saved more than “100 million people more than 6,000 years from waiting in line.”
SFO confirmed to Business Insider that it’s in the process of implementing QLess operations and expects to have them in place by the end of August 2020. The Dallas, Minneapolis, and Phoenix airports also said they’d had QLess on board since before the pandemic, and while the services were useful, now they’re necessary.
Think of how a restaurant (remember restaurants?) will text you to let you know what your place in line is if there’s a long wait. QLess provides a similar service. Instead of waiting for hours at an office for an employee’s name to be called, the employee can now wait at home until they actually need to show up for their appointment.
“We’re one of the biggest airports in the country, and people constantly need to go to the badging office to get their badges renewed,” said a spokesperson for DFW. “These are now turning out to be very helpful in these times when we’re trying to keep people from crowding.”
Security offices at airports are some of the busiest spots in the terminal, said Charlie Meyer, vice president of sales at QLess. On average, they get between 100 and 500 security requests a day for new badges, renewals, fingerprinting, or replacements for lost IDs. Before COVID-19, by 10 or 11 a.m., a security office could have a full line of people for the rest of the day, waiting for hours.
“It’s definitely been a wake up call,” Meyer said.
“We were fortunate. We’re kind of like Zoom right now as far as interest and sales going through the roof,” he added, in reference to the popular video messaging software that grew exponentially once the pandemic started and working from home became standard across the board.
When contacted by Business Insider, a spokesperson for the Denver Airport said their badging office “had to make several adjustments to daily operations to limit customer contact and social distancing.” It brought in QLess to assist with this to better keep everyone safe.
“All DEN airport employees can view wait times at both Badging Offices and enter the desired queue directly from the DEN Insider employee mobile application without having to be in our office,” a spokesperson for the airport said. Employees are then notified by text message when it’s their turn.
“This helps us with social distancing protocols by reducing the number of customers in the badging office at any one time,” the spokesperson said.
QLess said it’s been “in touch” with the TSA about providing similar services for passengers, but nothing has come of it yet. Independently, the Minneapolis airport said it was working with a separate company to provide “lobby flow management” and “help balance passengers between our checkpoints.”
Moving forward past COVID-19, Meyer said he fully expected their partnerships with airports to continue. After all, if you can wait in line for hours digitally instead of physically and go about your life in the meantime, why wouldn’t you?
“In a lot of ways, we were ahead of the tech curve when it comes to mobile queueing,” Meyer said. “It’s nice to see society catch up.”
Solving the parking problem
In addition to airport security and passengers, many businesses associated with airports have taken a hit in the pandemic. WhereiPark, a small company out of Toronto that launched in 2014, was already working at 300 properties across North America. Since the beginning of April, it said that it’s added “all the major car rental companies” at Seattle, Chicago O’Hare, SFO, Denver, and LAX to their client list: all huge hubs that needed to find spots for the hundreds of cars that would normally be out on the road.
The company focuses on finding open parking areas, whether it be at residential or commercial sites, that are currently underutilized due to a lack of people commuting or traveling. Even before the pandemic, the company was looking to make better use of urban spaces.
“If you have an apartment building with a commercial office tower nearby, those have exact opposite times when people need to be parked there,” said Jeremy Zucker, one of the founders of the company.
When the pandemic hit, rental car companies at airports found themselves in a pickle — and without any space. These companies base their real estate decisions (i.e., how many parking spots they need) off of the assumption that only 30 to 40% of their fleet will be on the premises at any one time, said Alex Enchin, WhereiPark’s other founder. But that’s clearly not the case anymore.
“If you look at airport parking, the pricing is based on high rates for short-term parking. Hertz and Budget don’t want to spend $1,200 a month to park 400 cars,” Enchin said. Initially, when the rental cars started coming back, he said, the cars were lining up the streets because the outlets didn’t have anywhere to put them.
“We’ve helped a lot of these companies find other locations for their cars rather than at the airport,” Enchin said. The company located recently refurbished warehouses, stadium parking lots, church parking lots, and university campuses that were otherwise unused and helped the companies store them for the duration. Avis/Budget declined to comment. Enterprise and Hertz did not respond to a request for comment.
Beyond airports, Zucker and Enchin said they’re hoping they can develop programs for flexible parking arrangements everywhere, especially as people remain wary of taking public transit.
“There is massive change happening,” Zucker said. “Who knows what will really unwind here.”