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Planning to fly at Thanksgiving for the first time during the pandemic? Here’s what you need to know

If you’re flying to see family for the holidays, you’ll notice differences at the airports. WUSA9 went behind the scenes with TSA to find out what the changes mean.

ARLINGTON, Va. — Thanksgiving is less than a week away and Transportation Security Administration officers are expecting to see the number of travelers they've checked daily during the pandemic double. That means many of you will be traveling for the first time in about eight months, and you'll see a lot of new measures at checkpoints.

But the question on everyone's minds is what traveling during a pandemic really looks like. Scott Johnson, the director of federal security for Reagan National and Dulles airports, took WUSA9 on a behind the scenes tour of what has changed at airports as COVID safety has necessitated additional protocols. 

At Reagan and Dulles, TSA said they expect 14,000 to 15,000 passengers for Thanksgiving, double their recent daily totals, and despite the passenger increase, officials aim to get people through checkpoints in under 10 minutes.

New sights include social distancing markers on the floor, TSA officers behind plexiglass and new technology in place. TSA officers are all wearing gloves, masks and face shields. If they have to do a pat down or a bag check, they put on new gloves.

“Passenger puts an ID in, he touches it himself, TSA doesn't touch the ID," Johnson said. "It takes the picture, captures the picture and compares the picture of the individual to the ID. The officer in the back can look at that picture, look at the ID, confirm it is in fact the person that's traveling, and off they go.”

Johnson noted there are also changes in the area where officers check carry-on luggage.

“We ask the passenger to slide everything down,” Johnson said. “The officer doesn't have to touch it.”

Credit: WUSA9
You'll notice changes at TSA checkpoints in order to travel during the pandemic.

RELATED: Tips for safely celebrating Thanksgiving amid COVID-19 pandemic

Here are a few more travel-related questions, answered by Johnson: 

Will I have to take my mask off when going through a checkpoint?

Answer: "The only time you’ll have to take your mask off is when we’re doing an ID check. We’ll ask you very quickly, ‘will you please lower your mask and put your mask back on again,’ just so we can see your entire face, comparing it to the ID."

Can I wear a face shield going through a checkpoint? 

Answer: "You can wear a face shield going through."

How much hand sanitizer can I bring with me? 

Answer: "12 ounces."

How often are the bins that I put my stuff in cleaned?

Answer: "We clean the bins, I’d like to say, all the time.TSA just put in a new contract for a company to come in and clean the bins, belts, tables and floors, and officers will also be cleaning bins with alcohol.


So, if you're traveling for the first time since the start of the pandemic and you're concerned, Johnson has a message for you.

“TSA’s mission has never changed: it's all about security," he said. "So, we’re going to ensure that the passengers are safe and secure on the airplanes. We still follow standard operating procedures. We still have the same equipment that we’ve had before COVID ... The second mission now is to ensure that passengers are safe from COVID and we make every effort we can to ensure that those passengers going through are safe from COVID, safe from any kind of attack.”

RELATED: If you're traveling to DC you need to take a COVID-19 test. Here's the District's updated travel advisory

Credit: MWAA
You'll notice safety measures in place beyond the TSA checkpoints.


Here are changes the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority hs made at Washington region airports: 

Changes inside the airports:

  • Increased cleaning of all high-touch areas, seating areas and rest rooms.
  • More than 300 hand sanitizer units for passengers in public areas and hand sanitizer in backrooms for employees.
  • Mandatory face coverings for employees and customers since May – masks are available for purchase at airport newsstands or for free at information booths. There is signage and public address announcements throughout the airports reminding passengers that masks are required.
  • More than 4,000 social distancing stickers and reminders throughout the airports, including at queues, check-in counters, concessions, TSA checkpoints, jet bridges, seating areas near gates and taxi queuing areas.
  • Plexiglass barriers at key customer and employee touchpoints – ticket counters, security checkpoints, boarding podiums and concessions.
  • Dulles specific: Mobile Lounges are being capped at 40% capacity and wiped down after every trip; deep cleaning nightly. Aerotrain has posted signage encouraging social distancing and mask wearing.

Parking changes:

  • Moved economy parking from the surface lot, which required a shuttle bus ride, to the terminal garages, which are within walking distance (eliminating the shuttle bus ride for customers).
  • At DCA, a fully contactless parking experience is available by making parking reservations online.
  • At both airports, use your credit card as your parking ticket, by inserting it at entry and exit (no need to take a ticket)

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