Sky Harbor scrubs airport as fliers take off for Labor Day weekend

These family members traveled to Phoenix to celebrate their grandmother’s 88th birthday on Friday. (Photo by Allie Barton/Cronkite News)

Nelli Kaplunskaya and Alex Sturwold arrived from Chicago on a United flight Thursday morning with their dog, Gracie Lou. The couple has flown three times roundtrip to Arizona during the last six months, because they’re moving to the state. Sturwold said Sky Harbor is “less chaotic” than other airports, but overall he feels less people are traveling. (Photo by Allie Barton/Cronkite News)

Sky Harbor has installed germ-zapping tech on escalators in Terminals 2 and 4. (Photo by Allie Barton/Cronkite News)

Phoenix Sky Harbor recently installed several UV-C LED light sterilizers, which kill about 99.9% of disease-causing germs, to escalators in Terminal 3 and 4. Apart from this installation, the airport is increasing safety measures, including handing out masks to passengers and encouraging social distancing. (Photo by Allie Barton/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The Labor Day weekend is starting, the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, and travelers are flying out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which has furiously prepared for an uptick in passengers.

The airport has installed germ-zapping tech on escalators, placed the now-ubiquitous social distancing signs on floors and throughout terminals and has workers scrubbing windows and surfaces.

Sky Harbor has been getting busier every month since April, spokesperson Heather Shelbrack said. The pandemic, with more than 200,000 coronavirus cases in Arizona, has devastated the airline industry.

The airport does not have passenger data yet for September, but Shelbrack said data shows the number of travelers in July was down about 64% compared to last year.

“That’s less than we’ve been down the past few months,” she said. “For Labor Day, we are anticipating being busier than we have been over the past couple weeks.”

Nelli Kaplunskaya and Alex Sturwold, who are moving to Arizona from Chicago, have flown quite a bit since the pandemic. They noticed a recent uptick in fliers.

“At the beginning, there weren’t many people flying,” Kaplunskaya said. On Thursday, their flight was fuller.

“We’re thinking it is probably because of the holiday weekend,” she said.

They have felt safe flying but take precautions on every flight, such as wiping seat belts and headrests and sanitizing their hands often.

“Every time I walk into the airport, I pretty much use hand sanitizers anywhere I see them,” Sturwold said.

To keep passengers safe, Sky Harbor will maintain its safety and sanitation procedures, including encouraging social distancing of at least 6 feet when possible, Shelbrack said.

“Any traveler or anyone coming to the airport will need to wear a face covering, and the airlines have also adopted similar face-covering policies,” she said.

Masked workers are regularly cleaning windows and surfaces at Sky Harbor International Airport. (Photo by Allie Barton/Cronkite News)

As an added adjustment to its pre-pandemic procedures, the TSA has granted an exemption on its carry-on rule for hand sanitizer. Most liquids are limited to 3-ounce containers but passengers are now allowed to bring one oversize hand sanitizer container of up to 12 ounces per person, Shelbrack said.

The airport is also encouraging people to use mobile boarding passes as much as possible to cut down on contact between travelers and employees.

Sky Harbor provides overhead announcements and scrolling messages on its flight information screens.

“We have physical distancing dots on the floor at the ticket counters, security checkpoints and baggage claim,” Shelbrack said. Restrooms have signs posted with numbers that people can call and text if they feel any area of the airport needs attention.

She said the airport has always “had very robust cleaning and sanitation efforts,” it has increased the frequency of cleaning in high-touch areas since the global health pandemic.

In June, Sky Harbor “added a new set of handrail cleaners to complement its cleaning schedule,” Shelbrack said. The machine “cleans both sides of the escalator handrails simultaneously” making the cleaning process more efficient.

A few weeks ago, the airport installed seven UV-C LED light sterilizers to high trafficked escalators in Terminals 3 and 4.

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The new technology is “known to kill 99.9% of disease-causing microorganisms using a germ destroying light,” Shelbrack said. It is always operating, tucked underneath the escalators’ handrails and, mostly, out of travelers’ sight.

“It provides a sanitary solution for highly touched handrails,” she said. It hasn’t been decided whether the new sterilizers will remain post-pandemic.

Sky Harbor has personal protective equipment available for sale in their shops. It even installed vending machines that sell protective equipment, including disposable and cloth masks, hand sanitizers, hygiene kits and gloves.

Passengers can check the airport’s website, which has a COVID-19 page for health and safety protocols, cancelled flights and what shops and restaurants are open.

Some ubiquitous travel advice is particularly pertinent during the pandemic: For those traveling out of Sky Harbor this Labor Day, Shelbrack recommends people “give themselves enough time and check their flight status before coming to the airport in case there are any delays or cancellations.”

Sierra Poore

News Reporter, Phoenix

Allie Barton

News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Allie Barton is a master’s student who expects to graduate in December 2020. As a News21 fellow, she wrote, filmed and produced multimedia stories about natural disaster recovery in the U.S. Barton also worked as a producer for “Catalyst” at Arizona PBS.

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