CHICAGO -- After months of hunkering down at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, travelers are slowly returning to the skies -- some eagerly, some cautiously -- and all curious to see how their first flight in months will be different.
On a recent morning at O'Hare International Airport's Terminal 1, used primarily by hometown carrier United Airlines, the scene was anything but what used to be considered normal. There were few families heading off on vacation and even fewer corporate road warriors killing time in the airport lounge. Employees appeared to outnumber travelers at the check-in area. A couple of workers used a lull between waves of flights to disinfect seats and kiosks.
Still, there are signs customers are coming back after travel plummeted this spring. Since mid-April, the number of people passing through U.S. airport security checkpoints each day has risen from below 90,000 to 576,514 on Thursday, according to the Transportation Security Administration. A year ago, there were 2,728,786 people, but it's the busiest that airports have been since late March.
The gradual return to air travel means fliers are likely to find airports cleaner and less crowded. Much about navigating the airport and boarding a flight remains the same. But from the shuttered airport shops to the hand sanitizer wipe handed to passengers when they board, the changes keep the pandemic front of mind.
Neither the airplane cabin nor the airport security line were designed for social distancing, and some efforts will depend on passengers' cooperation. Just this week, major U.S. carriers said they plan to rigorously enforce mask requirements after travelers complained on social media that other passengers weren't always following the rules.
"The more we do, the more customers will feel comfortable traveling," said Mike Hanna, who leads United's operations at O'Hare.
Knowing airlines require passengers as well as crew to wear masks reassured Louis and Lucille Luan, flying home to California Thursday after finishing the semester at the University of Illinois.
Their family encouraged the siblings to stay on campus when classes went virtual since COVID-19 wasn't spreading as rapidly in Champaign, but their lease ends in July and they decided it was time to head back.
But Lucille, 21, who hadn't flown since the pandemic started and canceled a spring break trip to Florida, noticed a couple of people with their faces uncovered while she waited in the check-in area.
"It made me a little nervous," she said.