The travel industry was hard hit after the first reports of swine flu emerged from Mexico in the spring. Trips were canceled, destination weddings were moved elsewhere and flights were grounded as traveler demand plummeted.
So the industry, already reeling from the effects of the recession, has reason to be cautious as the autumn flu season gets under way. Still, because the H1N1 pandemic strain, or swine flu, has generally not been more virulent than ordinary seasonal flu, airports, hotels and airlines are trying to find a balance between showing that they are taking substantive steps and not acting so aggressively that they set off a panic among travelers.
Their actions can best be described as preventive. So instead of cutting back on high-traffic services like buffet dining in areas affected by the virus, as they did in the spring, hotel representatives say they are focusing on day-to-day measures.
Most major hotel brands, among them Marriott, Hilton, Starwood and Intercontinental, are ramping up the cleaning of items most frequently touched by guests, like phones, hand rails, elevator buttons and fitness equipment. And they have added signs in the kitchens, administrative offices and other “back of the house” areas of hotels, reminding employees to wash their hands frequently and to cough or sneeze into a tissue rather than their hands.
Some hotels are placing tissues and dispensers of hand sanitizer in public areas. A spokesman for Marriott International, John Wolf, said the company’s hotels were stockpiling items like rubber gloves and making hand sanitizer available upon request to conference groups meeting at properties it managed.
Airports around the United States are also adopting alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Airports from Anchorage, Alaska, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, are placing the dispensers in high-traffic areas, often near security checkpoints (where travelers must remove their shoes) and by entrances and exits. They are frequently accompanied by signs explaining proper hygiene practices.
In addition, the signs at security checkpoints that remind travelers about banned items and security protocols are being joined by ones that highlight flu symptoms and ask travelers to keep their coughs and sneezes to themselves.
Once on board a flight, though, cautious travelers will have to make sure they have packed their own supplies. While most of the legacy domestic carriers like US Airways have first-aid kits that include sanitizing gel, they say they are not planning to add dispensers in lavatories or elsewhere in the aircraft.
Contrary to popular belief, the air on planes is not the Petri dish of germs many travelers assume it to be, said Dr. Nina Marano, an expert on travelers’ health at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I think people are sort of worried about cabin air,” she said, “but the air filtration systems in aircraft are highly sophisticated.” A representative of United Airlines called the carrier’s air filters “hospital grade.”
Still, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the union representing about half of all flight attendants in the United States, is pushing for additional preventive measures. Chris Witkowski, its director of air safety, health and security, said the association was lobbying to have high-grade N95 respirator masks — one for every crew member — on every flight. For its part, the Air Transport Association of America, which represents domestic airlines, says the disease agency has suggested that airline personnel consider wearing N95 masks only when in “close contact” with flu-stricken passengers.
An industry consultant, Robert W. Mann Jr., said in an interview that airlines might be worried about consumer response to some preventive measures. “I don’t think airlines want to go in the direction of latex gloves and masks,” he said, “because it’s somewhat alarming to people.”
A spokeswoman for the World Health Organization, Aphaluck Bhatiasevi, says the group encourages governments not to funnel too many resources into screening all travelers. Still, Marano of the disease agency said, travelers should expect to encounter a wide range of health protocols when entering foreign countries.
Steven Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents 230 airlines around the world, said the group spent weeks earlier this year distilling a hodgepodge of entry questionnaires into a single document that could be distributed to fliers.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 936 Americans had died of flu symptoms or of flu-associated pneumonia since August 30, when it began a new method of counting of deaths, including some without lab-confirmed swine flu. The regular flu season starts in November.
For travelers, the overarching message is one of personal accountability. “Frequent fliers tend to be pretty prepared,” Mann said. “I think the fact that people are somewhat sensitized to the issue will pay off in having people be more prepared.”