Lehigh Valley International Airport has taken many measures to ensure safe travel since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Staff monitored the pandemic as it developed in Wuhan, China, and began planning for safety measures before the virus had reached the United States. The airport focused on cost reduction and cash preservation while trying to minimize the impacts to employees.
The airport has an extensive emergency plan that covers various crisis scenarios. A pandemic, however, was not included in the plan, forcing the staff to start living the plan as it was written.
With constant new information being published, the team had to work rapidly to ensure success. Past epidemics such as MERS, SARS, and H1N1 were consulted for guidance.
Other than monetary concerns, the new plan detailed safety precautions to be implemented such as a mask mandate, over 700 social distancing decals throughout the facility, plexiglass shields at ticket counters, hand sanitation stations, self-cleaning door handle installments and disinfecting wipe stations for travelers and staff.
Colin Riccobon, director of public and government relations at Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, and Thomas Stoudt, executive director of Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, spoke about challenges the airport has faced.
“There was no playbook to respond to this sort of crisis, and through guidance, through direction from Tom (Stoudt) and the leadership team, the airport was able to adapt the travel environment so that no matter who you were … staff, stakeholders and passengers, that you felt you could fly safe at ABE,” Riccobon said.
Stoudt added in the aviation industry, safety is paramount. He views this crisis as an extension of usual safety operations.
“There’s three priorities in aviation and they’re all safety,” Stoudt said. “We kind of joke about it a little bit but you know, everybody, I don’t care what facet of aviation you’re in, if you’re manufacturing aircraft, you work for an airline, you work in an airport, you work for the FAA, it doesn’t matter where you are, this is drummed into your head from very early how critical safety is.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the response team implemented new measures and continues to reopen in terms of capacity.
ABE saw an immediate decrease in travel volume as soon as the pandemic reached the United States. According to traffic reports on flyabe.com, in April 2020, passenger traffic was down 96.71 percent and the airport saw a total of 2,749 passengers. For reference, pre-pandemic, the airport typically saw 2,000 passengers per day.
Riccobon said there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this holiday season.
The airport expects less volume than usual and shorter travel distances for passengers. Riccobon said people are intending to travel an average travel distance of 500 miles whereas in a typical holiday season, that number would be much higher. Additionally, travel is predicted to be down 30 to 40 percent.
As far as advice for travelers, Lehigh students or otherwise, the airport recommends arriving earlier than usual. Riccobon and Stoudt recommend consulting the airport, TSA and individual airline websites prior to arrival so the passenger knows what to expect and what new guidelines are in place.
“There’s responsibility for the airport to provide a safe and clean environment, but the passenger in some respects has a heightened responsibility to also be prepared to travel when they come through,” Riccobon said. “The signage and the mandates and the social distancing decals and all those things are in place because of our responsibility to keep you healthy and safe. We’re doing this together.”
Airport entry will not be permitted without a mask. Passengers can also bring a bottle of hand sanitizer up to 12 ounces, whereas normally TSA restricts the volume of any liquid to 3.4 ounces.
Lastly, Riccobon and Stoudt emphasized the importance of regularly sanitizing high-contact objects, especially cell phones. Phones are often overlooked but carry a large number of germs. When people use a phone to talk, they bring all of those germs in close contact with their noses and mouths. Even simply scrolling through a phone and then touching the face after can be dangerous.
John Paul Martin, an ABE passenger on Nov. 13, said he noticed shorter lines.
“Usually I’m in a long line waiting, and (now) I waited not at all,” Martin said. “I was the first one to be checked in.”
Martin also commented on the safety measures ABE took.
“I feel very safe, I feel 100 percent safe, not only in the airports but on the planes as well,” Martin said.
Moving forward, the airport staff wants to continue to communicate effectively with its passengers and stakeholders.
Both Riccobon and Stoudt acknowledged communication was a struggle at the beginning of the pandemic because of the sheer amount of information being published and the breadth of the audience that it needed to be shared with.
“We’ve talked about confidence, trust, and I think the other word we would use is transparency … when you look at what people understood and what was coming out informationally, I think you had some apprehension in communication because of the lack of information that was coming out,” Riccobon said. “The important thing was the responsibility we felt to be transparent to our staff, to our passengers, to the public, to the media, to everybody.”
For more information on the Lehigh Valley International Airport, visit https://www.flyabe.com/flysafewithabe/.