Passengers arriving in LA could be bringing COVID with them. How airport officials are handling risks

Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is offering COVID-19 tests for a fee, and people can expect results within 24 hours. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Despite repeated public health warnings, more Americans are expected to fly for Thanksgiving than any time since the pandemic started. And anyone coming into California is supposed to quarantine for 14 days — unless they’re here for work or school. 

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti explains what visitors need to do when they arrive: “Beginning Wednesday, all passengers at the two most busy airports we control (LAX and Van Nuys) and Union Station will be required to fill out a brief online form acknowledging the state policy that recommends quarantine. It’ll take less than a minute, but you can see this form at travel.lacity.org.”

Someone who doesn’t complete the form will be fined $500. Other than that, it’s unclear how the state would enforce a two-week quarantine. 

LAX and Ontario (ONT) airports also have on-site COVID-19 testing — for a fee.

“Tomorrow is supposed to be a very busy travel day. … There are people on the East Coast that want to come out to California, whether to visit family or for our warm weather,” says Brian Sumers, editor-at-large for the travel publication Skift. “Maybe they see what's going on and hey say, ‘Oh they're taking this seriously in California, maybe I should cancel my trip.’”  

Sumers says some airports like LAX are advising against flying. Others, such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Charlotte, are taking as many passengers as they can.

“Those municipalities may not take COVID quite as seriously. These are big airports. They depend on an airline — in both of those cases, American Airlines — for a huge part of their revenue. And maybe they don't want to give that up,” Sumers says. 

What to expect at airports and on planes

Airports and airlines are engaging in what Sumers calls “hygiene theater,” named after the security theater at airports after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We did a lot of things that may or may not have kept people safe, but it made it feel like people were being kept safe,” Sumers says. 

He notes airlines and airports are taking precautions, such as constantly cleaning surfaces, upgrading air filtration systems, and asking travelers to wear masks and keep socially distant. 

But he says those actions are partly due to airline marketing strategies. He points to the flights where a middle seat is kept empty.

“We've all listened to Dr. [Anthony] Fauci. We know that you have to be more than say 18 inches away from somebody to be safe. But a lot of airlines are still blocking the middle seats through this Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday.”

Economics and taking a gamble?

Sumers says that at the end of the day, airlines are a for-profit, publicly traded business.

“They’re in a huge cash crunch right now. They have taken on a ton of debt to get through this pandemic. … They need people to fly again. And it does seem like they're willing to say whatever they need to do to get people on their planes again,” Sumers says.

Crowding at the airport might still be a reality this holiday season too. Sumers points to images of overflowing airport gates on social media.

“You look at it and you think, ‘Maybe that's not the safest thing to do right now.’ But there are a lot of folks that don't care. They want to get on an airplane, they want to see their loved ones.” 

Proving you’re healthy 

Sumers says airports like LAX and ONT are offering testing because some destinations, like Hawaii, are requiring travelers to present a negative COVID test before arriving.

“There's been some thought in the industry that if we could just get testing ramped up, that would be the panacea to getting everybody on airplanes again.” 

Australia-based Qantas Airways announced this week it would require proof of COVID-19 vaccination when flying once vaccines are available. Sumers says this might not be a bad move.

“Right now, Americans essentially cannot go to Australia. You could only do it if you were also an Australian citizen. And if that's what it's going to take to open up borders — to open up borders to Canada, to the European Union — I think most people will accept it,” he says.

However, it’s currently too early to tell what other airlines will do down the road, he notes.

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