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Published: Jun 24, 2020 16 min read
Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

Summer is finally here and the U.S. is opening back up following the coronavirus-induced shutdown. That might make you eager to hop on a plane and escape the home you’ve been inhabiting for the last few months – but there’s a new normal to be ready for in airline travel this summer.

While most viruses don’t spread easily on flights because of how air on planes is circulated and filtered, air travel makes social distancing hard with security lines, busy terminals and crowded flights, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends avoiding all nonessential international travel and says that even domestic travel increases your chances of getting and spreading the virus.

But if you have to travel, airlines have made many changes to keep up with the CDC’s guidance. All of the airlines we have listed now require face coverings – we've included details on exactly when you need to wear them. It’s best to bring your own mask (or scarf or bandana) to do the trick, although some airlines will have limited masks available in case you forget. Individual airports are also rolling out their own rules. Pack hand sanitizer as well – the Transportation Security Administration is now allowing travelers to carry one liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 ounce in their carry-on bags.

Expect to see more of the six-foot-apart rule you’ve likely become accustomed to with reminders via signs and floor decals for many airlines. Boarding procedures have been changed for all of the airlines we have listed below, either by back-to-front boarding, small boarding groups or allowing customers to board at the end of the flight (some have more than one of these processes in place). The food and beverage services have also been limited for all of these airlines.

Here's a rundown of all the major airlines and what you can expect this summer.

Alaska Airlines

Although it’s always a good idea to carry your own hand sanitizer, Alaska Airlines will also have you covered. The airline is rolling out additional hand-sanitizing stations in check-in lobbies and gate areas, as well as offering individual hand sanitizer wipes on board starting in July. All of its lounges have been temporarily closed, except the one at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport in the D Concourse.

Like many airlines, Alaska Airlines has also updated its boarding procedures to allow for social distancing – guests will now board by row numbers in smaller groups from the back to the front.

Don’t expect to board into a middle seat – they’re blocked through July and flights will be capped at 65% capacity. If you’re traveling as a couple or with a family, you’ll be able to request to sit together in advance or at the airport on the day you’re traveling.

Flights up to 350 miles will not have a food or beverage service, while flights longer than 350 miles will have individual bottled waters and a packaged snack for flyers (plus a sealed can of beer if you’re in the first or premium classes).

Mask policy: Masks are required for all guests over the age of 12 when social distancing cannot be maintained, including the check-in lobby, lounges, boarding gates, jet bridges, loading ramps and stairs, on the aircraft except when consuming food or drink and baggage claim.

Refund policy: There are no change or cancellation fees on flights booked before June 30, 2020. The airline also allows you to cancel or make a change to your flight within 24 hours of purchasing.

American Airlines

American Airlines is installing shields at the ticket counters, will have agents at alternating work stations and is turning off some kiosks to allow for distancing.

The airline has temporarily closed some of its clubs and lounges. For those that remain open, guests can show their card or scan their boarding passes to enter. In some clubs, restrooms will have foot-operated devices installed too so passengers can avoid contact.

The airline is creating more space onboard as well with gate agents reassigning seats on some flights when time allows. There will be a limited food and drink service in main cabins, which will vary based on flight length. Flights under 900 miles, for example, will have water, canned drinks and juice by request only with no snacks or alcohol available. American Airlines has also stopped checking pets for now (although carry-on pets, service and emotional support animals are still allowed).

Mask policy: American Airlines requires masks while on board the airline for anyone except small children or people with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing them. The face covering must be on at the gate before you board the airplane.

Refund policy: There is no fee for one change or cancellation and rebooking for flights scheduled between March 1 and September 30, 2020, or bought on or before June 30, 2020. However, your new travel must be completed on or before December 31, 2021. The airline allows up to 24 hours from the time of ticket purchase for a refund if you booked at least 2 days prior to departure.

Delta Air Lines

Delta has added plexiglass shields to all of the airline’s counters that are staffed with an agent throughout the airport. It’s also offering hand sanitizers on all ticket counters, boarding gates, help centers, baggage service officers and lounges. If you’re on board for a long-haul, international flight, you’ll also be offered an amenity kit, including hand cleansers and cleansing towelettes.

Delta is also blocking middle seats and capping seating in its cabins through September 30. Seating will be capped at 50% in first class; 60% in the main cabin, Delta Comfort+ and Delta Premium Select and 75% in Delta One. The airline will also block some aisle seats in aircrafts that have two-by-two seating configurations.

Delta has made adjustments to its food and beverage service for both domestic and international flights. For example, for domestic and short-haul international flights, the only beverage available will be individual bottled water.

Mask policy: Delta customers are required to wear face masks throughout their travel, including at check-in, Delta Sky Clubs, boarding gates, jet bridges and onboard for the duration of the flight except during meal service. Children and those who have trouble wearing a mask due to an underlying medical condition are exempt.

Refund policy: You can change any flight purchased between March 1 and June 30 2020 with no fee for a year from the date you purchased it. If you book a flight on the Delta app or website, the airline allows you to cancel it for any reason and receive a full refund with no fees up to 24 hours after the purchase.

Frontier Airlines

Frontier has taken a step further with temperature screenings for all passengers and team members prior to boarding flights with touchless thermometers.

If you have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher, you’ll be given time to rest if the departure time allows, then get a second check. If the second check is still 100.4 degrees or higher, you won’t be allowed to fly (the same goes for employees).

The airline is offering only limited beverage items available for purchase.

Mask policy: Frontier passengers are required to wear a face covering at ticket counters, gate areas and while onboard the aircraft. This doesn't apply to very young children who are unable to maintain a face covering.

Refund policy: Bookings made between March 10 and April 15, 2020 will be permitted a one-time change to travel plans without a fee. You can change to a flight of equal or lesser value or pay the difference for a more expensive flight, but the travel must be completed by September 12, 2021. You can also cancel the flight (for no fee) and apply the value of the ticket toward a future trip booked within 90 days of cancellation. Typically, the airline issues no change or cancellation fees for flights changed or cancelled over 60 days before the flight. There is a $79 fee for those changed or cancelled 59 to 14 days before the flight and a $119 fee for those changed or cancelled 13 days or less.

JetBlue Airways

JetBlue is also limiting its seats for sale – middle seats are blocked on larger aircrafts and most aisle seats are blocked on smaller aircrafts.

Once on board, you won’t be seeing the full food and drink services you might be used to seeing on JetBlue flights. In its economy cabins, the airline has replaced the usual snack basket and beverage cart with pre-sealed snacks and beverage bags. For customers flying Mint – JetBlue’s take on the premium travel experience – pre-packaged fresh meals and single-serving beverages will be available (with single-use cups, instead of glassware and mugs). The free inflight snack bar usually offered on certain flights will no longer be available. The airline has also suspended sales of products you can usually buy onboard, like alcohol, pillows, blankets and earbuds.

The seatback entertainment will still be available – just remember to bring your own headphones – and on some aircrafts, passengers will be able to use their phones as television remotes to avoid touching the screens.

Mask policy: The airline requires face coverings throughout the journey, including during check-in, boarding, while in flight and deplaning. Small children are exempt.

Refund policy: JetBlue is also waiving change and cancellation fees for existing bookings made before June 30. If you choose to rebook on another flight, the fare difference may apply. If you choose to cancel, you'll receive travel credits valid for two years.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest is limiting its boarding to only groups of 10 at a time and only on one side of its boarding poles to encourage travelers to spread out.

Until at least the end of July, Southwest airline will continue operating with about one-third of available seats left open on every flight, according to Ro Hawthorne, communications lead at Southwest Airlines. Middle seats will be open through at least July 31 (but if you’re traveling together, you can still sit together).

For flights over 250 miles, passengers will be served cans of water with straws and a snack mix when available with cups and ice available upon request. On all other flights, the snack and beverage service is still suspended.

Mask policy: Passengers need to wear a face covering at all times during their travel experience, including while checking in, boarding, inflight, deplaning, retrieving baggage and any other time they engage with an employee or other customer. If you need to take it off to eat or drink, you're expected to put it back on as soon as possible. Young children, those who have a disability or underlying medical condition and anyone who has trouble breathing may be exempt.

Refund policy: Southwest typically doesn't charge fees to change or cancel flights. If you cancel a nonrefundable ticket, the funds can be used for future travel. Because of the coronavirus, the expiration date for using those funds has been extended – if you purchased a nonrefundable fare for travel between March 1 and September 7, 2020, you can receive travel funds good through September 7, 2022.

Spirit Airlines

In addition to placing social-distancing indicators at all check-in counters, Spirit is encouraging passengers to tag bags and drop off bags themselves via kiosks.

Passengers can also scan their own boarding passes instead of passing them back and forth to gate workers. If you’re still uncomfortable, the airline is allowing passengers to get on the plane at the end of the boarding process.

Beverages and snacks will be available by request only.

Mask policy: Spirit guests are required to wear face coverings both at the airport and throughout the flight. Children who are not able to maintain a face covering are exempt.

Refund policy: The airline is waiving change and cancellation fees for those who book travel by June 30, 2020. You'll receive a full purchase price reservation credit. Generally, for reservations made 7 days or more before a scheduled departure date, changes and cancellations made within 24 hours of booking are free.

United Airlines

United Airlines has a six-foot-apart rule at the ticketing counters, and the airline is implementing a touchless check-in process at some of its airports via kiosks.

Currently, the airline is allowing customers on flights that it expects to be above 70% full to choose to rebook on a different flight or receive a travel credit – this is so far just through June 30.

While boarding, United will provide hand sanitizer wipes to passengers. The airline has shifted its food and drink service to primarily pre-packaged foods and sealed beverages, and has suspended its buy-on-board food menu and hot towel service.

Mask policy: United Airlines requires all passengers to wear face coverings throughout the flight except for when they're eating and drinking. Travelers with a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering, as well as small children, are exempt.

Refund policy: United has waived all change fees for tickets issued on or before March 2, 2020, for travel between June 1 and December 31, 2020. Customers also have until June 30 to make changes to – or cancel – travel they have booked through the end of the year without fees. If you cancel, the value of your ticket can be applied to a new ticket for a flight booked within two years. The airline also has a 24-hour refund policy.

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