Holiday Traveling at Sky Harbor Amid Pandemic

With the number of COVID-19 cases rising rapidly, this holiday travel season will look different than in years past.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly advises against nonessential travel and urges that you cancel any holiday travel plans.

If you do decide to travel, whether it be by land or by air, you need to really think through your plans to prevent yourself from being exposed to the virus or spreading it to others.

Here’s what to know if you’re flying through Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport this holiday season.

The number of states and cities that are implementing travel restrictions and COVID-19 testing requirements changes daily. California has regional stay-home orders in some areas that restrict hotels from honoring out-of-state reservations. Make sure you understand the requirements of your home state and your destination before departing.

If you’re flying internationally on American Airlines, consider downloading its VeriFLY app. It will help you verify that you have all the correct documentation so you won’t be denied entry at your destination.

The CDC recommends COVID-19 testing before and after any type of trip. If you test positive, do not travel. If you’ve been exposed (meaning you have had close contact with someone who tested positive and are awaiting test results) do not travel. Stay home to avoid spreading the virus to others.

The CDC recommends getting your first test one to three days before departure and the second test three to five days after arriving at your destination, and reducing your activities for seven days after arriving. Look up test sites in your destination before you get there to see if you need an appointment.

If you do not get tested, the CDC recommends quarantining for 10 days.

While the test provides important information, it does have limitations. Know that if you test negative, you’re just testing negative at that moment. You could still have the virus but not at a yet detectable level. You could be exposed during travel. Regardless of your test result, you still need to wear a mask, wash your hands and keep your distance when in public.

On Nov. 23, Sky Harbor opened an XpresCheck COVID-19 testing clinic. It is in the Drugs & More store before security on Level 3 in Terminal 4. Hours of operation are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Mondays and results are typically available within one to three days. The XpresCheck website indicates that it also offers Rapid Molecular COVID-19 tests at Sky Harbor with results reportedly available in less than 15 minutes.

Reservations are preferred but walk-in testing is available.

Airports will be crowded with holiday travelers — especially Sky Harbor, where people are arriving to avoid winter weather in other parts of the country. Take all the steps you normally would: Get there early and expect crowds in the gate areas and at restaurants.

Try to balance arriving at the airport in time with not spending unnecessary time there. Check your flight status before you depart to estimate the proper time to arrive. And you can check security wait times at One caveat: Lines might look deceptively long as passengers socially distance.

The airport is on a 24-hour cleaning schedule. Crews are cleaning high-touch areas around the clock and the gate areas three times a day. The airport has installed UV technology to sanitize escalator handrails.

To avoid traffic congestion outside the terminals, consider picking up or dropping off travelers at the PHX Sky Train station at 44th and Washington streets. The ride is free and takes just a few minutes to terminals 3 and 4. The recommended limit for the number of passengers in a train compartment is 15.

Finally, check the COVID-19 procedures at your destination airport. For instance, Denver’s VeriFLY app lets you make a reservation for a dedicated TSA line and a limited-capacity train car to the concourse.

Typically, the Christmas travel rush begins the Friday before Christmas and lasts through the Sunday after New Year’s Day.

But, with more people working from home and children doing distance learning this year, we may see some changes to that. Expect the window for travel to be longer this year as people look to travel on less busy days.

The advice is clear: The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a mask.

Evidence shows that masks work as a layer of protection to prevent the spread of the virus by keeping droplets that could contain the virus off your neighbors and out of the air. Be kind and wear your mask while traveling to keep your germs to yourself.

If you don’t wear a mask, you’ll be asked to leave your flight and could be banned from future flights. If you approach security without a mask, the TSA agent will ask you to put one on. If you don’t have one, they will provide one.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency donated 1.8 million cloth masks to Sky Harbor for distribution to passengers and employees.

You’ll find them in a bin just past security. You can also request one at the airport’s information counters or get one in the Rental Car Center. There also are vending machines where you can purchase masks throughout the terminals.

But experts say it’s best to find a comfortable, well-fitting mask before you travel.

“You want it to be comfortable because if it’s not, you are going to be tempted to try and lift it up a little bit to breathe or shift around on your face or something like that,” Kacey Ernst, an epidemiologist with the University of Arizona, said.

Consider also wearing a face shield to protect against the virus entering through your eyes.

When you reach security, a few things have changed. Here’s what you need to know.

If your driver’s license expired after March 1, don’t worry. TSA says it “will accept expired drivers licenses or state-issued ID a year after expiration or 60 days after the duration of the emergency, whichever is longer.”

At the checkpoint, respect the social distancing markers on the floor. There are plexiglass dividers between the TSA agents who scan your license and boarding pass. When you reach the checkpoint, the agent will ask you to lower your mask for a moment to match your face to your identification.

TSA agents wear face shields and regularly change their gloves. Know that you can also ask the agent to change gloves. The bins are cleaned every day, but consider putting loose items in your carry-on bag instead of in a bin.

If you have a medical condition or disability, TSA has a helpline to answer questions about screening procedures. Call 855-787-2227.

Go to to find out what items are allowed in carry-on luggage and what must go in your checked bags. If you’re carrying gifts, don’t bother wrapping them. They might end up being unwrapped for further screening.

The rule of thumb is that anything liquid, gel or spreadable must be 3 ounces or less to go in your carry-on. Larger sizes must be checked. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer through security as well as disinfecting wipes.

Restaurants have slowly begun reopening before and after security as the airport has seen increased traffic. Some of the full-service restaurants have plexiglass dividers between seats.

Some restaurants are operating on reduced schedules, so your options may be limited depending on the time of day you are traveling. However, you should be able to find one food option open on each concourse. Find out what’s open and closed at

Getting your boarding pass on your phone is a great way to limit contact during your travels. But airline apps also offer features such as virtual bag sizers to make travel more efficient.

This year, some of those features might be handy for helping you keep your distance from crowds in the airport.

For instance, many airlines send users a push notification when a flight starts boarding. That means if your gate is crowded, you can go to a less busy part of the airport and still know when to board your flight.

If you’re parking at the Phoenix airport, planning ahead can save you a few bucks. You can book parking in advance online and receive a discount of up to 50%.

There are designated areas for ride-share pickups and drop-offs at each terminal:

  • Terminal 3: Level 1, south curb outside Door 4.
  • Terminal 4: Level 1, north curb outside Door 1.
  • Terminal 4: Level 1, south curb outside Door 8.

If you get picked up or dropped off at the PHX Sky Train Station, you’ll save a little money as the fee for getting picked up at that location is $2.80 as opposed to $4 at a terminal. (That fee is in addition to your fare.)

One of the American Airlines Admirals Clubs and the Delta lounge are open at reduced capacity. The Escape Lounge (which is offering a discounted pass on Groupon) reopened Nov. 20. The Centurion Lounge reopened Nov. 23 with modified hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If you or a loved one need a little extra time and understanding during your journey, consider signing up for Sky Harbor’s Compassion Cacti lanyard program. It uses brightly colored lanyards to alert airport personnel that you might need a little extra patience to navigate the process.

Fill out the form at You do not have to provide any medical documentation.

The airport will review the request and respond in five to seven days. You can then pick up the lanyard from the Compassion Corner office at Sky Harbor before or on the day of your flight. While there, you can check out the airport’s new sensory room inside the airport chapel near the B Checkpoint in Terminal 4.

You may wonder if tweeting at your airline is the best way to get help if something goes wrong with your flight. Know that airlines’ social media teams are staffed with problem-solving experts who are trained to react quickly. It’s not impolite to send them a direct message. Just be specific and pleasant.

The deadline for having a Real ID for travel was pushed to next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting Oct. 1, 2021, your identification needs to be Real ID-compliant for you to board a domestic flight in the United States. Make a mental note to replace your driver’s license with one that meets Real ID standards.

How do you know if your Arizona driver’s license is a Real ID? If it has a gold star in the upper right-hand corner, you can use it to board a plane. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to get a new ID or use another compliant ID such as a passport or military ID.