In the wake of COVID-19, airports around the world have undergone substantial changes to protect their travelers. For University students, this means that already complicated journeys from home to Middletown have been even more taxing, especially on the arrival side. First-year students traveling to the University for the first time have found that American airports still seem to underperform compared to their international counterparts and fail to keep their customers safe.
Still, many students found the first part of the journey to be easier than expected. Jonghwa Kim ’25, who traveled from South Korea, found that the travel process was actually expedited on the departure end.
“Normally, I would have to wait at customs for about half an hour before my departure, but now, everything was so much [faster] since the airport barely held anyone,” Kim said.
Other protocols such as shop closures and social distancing added to the feeling of emptiness in airports abroad.
“The airport was generally very empty so social distancing wasn’t a problem. Some of the duty shops were closed, which I guess was [fine],” Eja Hamid ’25 said.
With fewer people bustling to catch their flights, most international airports are saturated with sanitizing stations, extra masks, temperature check stations, and social distancing floor markers. In contrast, American airports hold significantly more passengers but lack these safety measures, causing students traveling from international destinations to feel especially unsafe. Emily Grace Pedersen ’25, who traveled from her home in Switzerland to Los Angeles, said the bag check was a huge area of concern for her.
“The boxes [where you put your bags] are already disgusting enough and it has been touched by thousands of people,” Pedersen said. “So you just want to sanitize your hands after [touching] your bags, but you cannot even do that.”
The lack of sanitation measures in US airports was only the first of many differences. Students from both Europe and Asia also noticed a lack of stringency with official documents, specifically the COVID-19 test, which most countries require from between 48 to 72 hours ahead, and proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Kim felt that there was not enough attention given to checking these documents.
“It was just like they glanced over my document but [did] not read it thoroughly,” Kim said.
With respect to social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols, Kim continued to feel a lack of urgency in U.S. airports.
“I think [they were] too relaxed [which is] risky for the country because they may allow people who contracted COVID-19 to not quarantine or people who are not supposed to be in the country to be in,” Kim said.
Added criteria around COVID-19 testing also posed challenges for students traveling internationally. Pedersen found it difficult to get a COVID-19 test in the United States compared to Switzerland.
“I wanted to get a test even though I was vaccinated in L.A.,” Pedersen said. “But I found that it was extremely hard to get a test. You have to book two weeks in advance because everything was [already] filled up or you [had] to pay like two hundred bucks. But in Switzerland, you can [have] a COVID test [within] 15 minutes.”
The changes were also apparent between each flight. Kim noted that his international flight had more staff safety precautions.
“They were wearing protective suits, masks, and face shields,” said Kim. “The entire setup [was] to protect against exposure. They were [still] friendly and everything, but it’s clear that they did not want to be in the cabin as much to minimize contact. I [also] saw them cleaning proactively throughout the flight which was nice.”
Other changes in flight procedure included additional sanitary protocols, such as sanitizing restrooms and seating areas.
“When you got on the plane, they used to give you headphones and stuff,” Pedersen said. “Now they also give you a ketchup packet of hand sanitizer.”
Students saw most people complying with the mask rules or even wearing face shields and protective suits on their flights. However, some students noticed that after boarding on American flights, many passengers did not follow mask regulations. Instead, passengers would often put their masks under their nose or take them off completely, endangering both themselves and other passengers.
“If you are not careful, you can be contaminated with COVID,” Kim said. “And in a flight, each person has their own destinations, easily making each of them a super-spreader if they are not careful and aware of their condition.”
In addition, Hamid felt surprised by how crowded flights in the United States were.
“I think it was more crowded than [usual],” Hamid said. “[There was no room for] social distancing.”
Many students traveling from abroad hope that U.S. airport safety protocols improve in the future as they continue their undergraduate journey in person.
“One of my biggest fears in the U.S. airport is contract[ing] the virus during the flights because the first weeks of college [are] extremely valuable,” Hamid said. “As a result, I hope the U.S. airlines and passengers will be more aware of others’ safety and improve their services in the future.”
Yin Huynh can be reached at email@example.com.