Airports Share Healthy Habits - & Fewer Viruses - With Travelers

Rebecca Kanable
Published in: 

When someone coughs openly, countless germ-filled droplets are expelled more than three feet. Sounds like a topic for doctors or schoolteachers, but ever since the World Health Organization signaled a global H1N1 flu pandemic was underway this past June, it's also been a hot-button issue for airport directors.

Concerns about the health and safety of employees, tenants and the traveling public have prompted action at airports worldwide.

Getting the Word Out

Before the busy holiday travel season began in November, Will Rogers World Airport (WRWA) in Oklahoma City issued a news release about the extra measures it was taking for visitors during flu season. In addition to announcing new hand sanitizer stations, the airport urged travelers to take personal precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

• cover nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing

• wash hands often with soap and water

• avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth

• avoid close contact with sick people

• when sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone

Mark Kranenburg

The airport's communication campaign, lead by WRWA marketing coordinator Karen Carney, further advised that the H1N1 virus is spread the same way as the seasonal flu - mainly from person to person. It also reminded the public that contact with an infected person sneezing or coughing openly increases the possibility of infection, and so does touching one's eyes, nose or mouth after coming in contact with a virus-contaminated object or surface.

"Whenever we do something with the media, like holiday travel tips, we also try to increase awareness and encourage travelers to help stop the spread of viruses by practicing good health measures," says WRWA airport director Mark Kranenburg.

According to Carney, the H1N1 virus has created heightened awareness this year, and media attention has helped encourage travelers to watch their habits and avoid spreading viruses of any kind.

WRWA also offered seasonal flu shots to traveling public, and plans were underway for a second H1N1 vaccine clinic.

"We generally have a pretty good response from employees and tenants," Carney reports. "I think this year we're seeing more people getting flu shots."

Don't Touch That

With so many things on their minds, proper hand hygiene isn't typically travelers' primary focus. Anticipating the potential consequences of travelers' hygiene lapses, many airports have begun offering hand sanitizer to help prevent the spread of germs that cause illness like the flu.

Louisville International Airport and WRWA use AutoFoam Touch-Free Dispensers made by Technical Concepts. Both airports mount the dispensers on portable stands so workers can easily move them from gate to gate or into other areas such as the food court. WRWA's stands are made by Bella Bagno; Louisville's are from Technical Concepts.

The CDC reports routine hand hygiene is an important line of defense against the influenza virus, other viruses and bacteria. Many doctors cite it as the best defense against getting sick. At airports, hand sanitizer dispensers are not only convenient, they also thrust the topics of health and hygiene into the sight and minds of travelers.

In November, Louisville International placed two hand sanitizer dispensers in its airside terminal and two in the landside terminal. WRWA posts sanitizer near the entrances and exits of each security checkpoint, in the Center Concourse food court area, next to Harold's Shoe Shine on the West Concourse, and next to the Travelers' Aid booth on the baggage claim level. Six dispensers are on pedestals; one is wall-mounted. Dispensers at security checkpoint exits are used the most.

Like many airports, WRWA focuses on hands-free devices in restrooms. Electronic toilet seat cover systems have been in place for more than a decade. Faucets and paper towel dispensers are activated with the remote wave of a hand rather than a direct touch.

"The more touchless we can get, the fewer surfaces there are to allow viruses to spread through contact," explains Kranenburg.

Airport-wide Efforts

Even retailers are part of germ-prevention efforts at WRWA. For the first time ever, The Paradies Shops have begun selling disposable facemasks. They also recently boosted their single option of hand sanitizer to seven types in various forms and sizes. Store employees keep hand sanitizer at the cash registers as well.

"Everyone needs to be washing their hands and taking care of themselves so they're not spreading something to someone else," says Holly Riley, general manager of The Paradies Shops at WRWA.

Throughout the facility, notes Kranenberg, there's a consciousness and awareness that the airport is a public place with nearly 10,000 people going through daily.

"We always strive to keep the terminal clean and sanitized and do what we can to promote healthy habits," he says, noting that germ hot spots such as trash cans, chairs, handrails and elevator panels are sprayed daily with disinfectant.

Off With Their Shoes

One of the most common complaints from air travelers today is about taking off shoes for pre-flight security checks. It may not be linked to the spread of flu, but people don't like the health implications of standing barefoot where other travelers just stood barefoot. Cold hard-surface floors don't help the mood, either.

Louisville International and WRWA both use disposable antimicrobial checkpoint runners and wanding mats to ease travelers' concerns. Louisville has had runners and mats in place at all five of its TSA security checkpoint lanes for the past two years; WRWA has used the runners and mats for about five years.

"It's a sanitary measure and a comfort measure," Kranenburg explains.

Bella Bagno provides antimicrobial runners and mats to 25 airports. At 11 of them, TSA operations rather than the airport purchase the products, notes company president Cynthia Lazarus.

The 2-by-6-foot checkpoint runners prominently display notices that they are antimicrobial. This, notes Lazarus, increases traveler confidence in removing shoes and speeds the screening process. Antimicrobial agents allow the runners to inhibit the growth of microbes such as viruses and fungi that cause conditions such as athlete's foot.

Wanding mats for secondary screening areas were developed at the urging of Chris Cox, a customer service stakeholder manager for TSA's Eastern Washington District. Cox was looking for something to help ease the minds of customers concerned about what their bare feet were standing on.

The 2-by-3-foot mats used at security wanding stations have antimicrobial feet templates for passengers to stand on during additional security checks. According to Lazarus, Bella Bagno's wanding mats are the only ones on the market made of green-certified fiber.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told USA Today that travelers will continue to take off shoes during pre-flight security checks until technology is sufficiently robust to protect against shoe bombers without asking passengers to remove their shoes.

Some airports are testing slip-on booties, Lazarus reports, but they can slow passenger throughput and pose "slip-and-fall liability" to TSA and the airport.

Proactive Approach

Lazarus considers Louisville International and WRWA progressive thinkers when it comes to the health and safety of the traveling public.

"They see their responsibility for protecting travelers in a broader way," she explains. "They really care about the people who travel through their facilities. They didn't wait until the H1N1 virus became a problem and hand sanitizers were on backorder. They understand protecting travelers against microscopic invaders is just as important as providing food concessions and newsstands."

Bella Bagno recently introduced a new product for airports providing protective facemasks to travelers. The dispenser is designed like a tissue box so airport visitors can take a single mask without touching or contaminating other masks. The dispenser, which became available in December, can be placed on a counter, mounted on a wall or included as part of a hand sanitizer stand. Like hand sanitizer dispensers on Bella Bagno stands, the facemask dispenser can be locked to prevent theft and tampering.

Help Travelers Avoid the Flu

To help prevent the spread of viruses during the 2009-2010 flu season, CDC Travelers' Health has launched its largest-ever public awareness campaign. Materials to help travelers stay healthy are available at



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