International airports pose bigger COVID-19 threat than imagined

Istanbul International Airport, a major hub, is beginning to take greater precautions

Passengers take photos at the city's new Istanbul Airport in Istanbul, Turkey (photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS)
Passengers take photos at the city's new Istanbul Airport in Istanbul, Turkey
(photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS)
Stepping into John F. Kennedy International Airport after transferring from Istanbul Airport on March 2, Meltem Dorak was surprised to see that both airports took few visible precautions against COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.
During her time at Istanbul Airport, she realized that only a few passengers were wearing masks. Before checking into her flight, she was given a questionnaire to fill out.
“At both airports, the only thing coronavirus-related was that there was a question on the questionnaire which asked me if I had recently visited China,” Dorak told The Media Line during a phone interview. “Nothing else was checked.”
Airports are the portal of transportation for COVID-19 which, continues to rapidly spread throughout the world. So far, there have been more than 200,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and over 8,000 deaths. Airports have been slow to take precautions against the spread of the infectious disease.
Dorak was a passenger on Turkish Airlines flight TK3. During her flight, she overheard a conversation between a flight attendant and a passenger. 
“The passenger asked the flight attendant if she was scared and if the workers took any precautions and the flight attendant said no,” Dorak said. 
A lot has changed in a week and Turkish Airlines, alongside many other airlines, has new rules on how to protect its passengers, but these rules may not be enough. 
“We have taken extra measures since the beginning of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic to minimize both its effects and spreading. Our aircraft undergo an extensive cleaning process upon completing their flight, in accordance with the guidelines of national and international civil aviation authorities,” a statement on the airline’s website reads.
The precautions that airlines and airports have issued don’t necessarily include physical screenings for all flights, and many passengers were surprised more isn’t being done.
“I purposely left some questions on the questionnaire about sickness empty but none of the staff members checked it,” Sevil Mert, a travel writer who flew in from Singapore on March 11, said in an email to The Media Line. “I also didn’t see any thermal cameras in the airport, but my husband claims that he saw one as we walked toward the exit. Of course, this was all a week ago so maybe things have changed since then.”
Many passengers transferring from Istanbul on Turkish Airlines flights later tested positive for coronavirus. One of them was a male passenger who transferred from Istanbul to Tel-Aviv. The passenger was on board the TK784 and all passengers were immediately told to contact the Israeli Health Ministry. Another passenger onboard TK54, which flew from Istanbul to Singapore, tested positive. Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced that the entire staff would be in quarantine for 14 days. 
Istanbul Airport started taking measures as the number of cases increased. “Thermal screenings started in the first week of February,” said the corporate communications chief at Istanbul Airport, Nigar Şeyda Yilmaz, in an email to The Media Line. 
Yilmaz confirmed that, alongside thermal cameras, the airport has set up hand sanitizer points. They also have a team that disinfects common spaces and is hosting awareness-raising training sessions for staff members.
Some passengers have noticed the changes made at the airport.
“There seemed to be some measures to fight the virus at Istanbul Airport. I saw many staff members with gloves and masks,” Ayse Refia Bozalan, a passenger at Istanbul Airport on March 10, said.
At some airports, such as JFK in New York, screening methods now include taking passengers’ temperatures for signs of fever, but these have proven unreliable. Many airlines are now canceling flights to and from certain regions.
“I was scared throughout the whole flight and I think airlines are doing the right thing in canceling flights in an effort to stop the spread. Nothing else seems to be working,” Dorak said.
If coronavirus continues to spread, airlines will lose over $110 billion in sales globally, according to the International Air Transport Association. With the virus slowly creeping its way into the US, it doesn’t seem that the pandemic will be over anytime soon.
Turkish Airlines recently announced that it canceled flights to nine European countries due to concerns about the coronavirus.
"Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Europe, our flights from Germany, France, Spain, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Austria, and the Netherlands as departure points are suspended starting from Saturday at 8:00 am until 17 April," the company stated.
However, the airline plans to increase services to several cities in North America. These include Chicago, San Francisco, Mexico City, and Cancún. 
The airline’s service from Istanbul to Chicago's O’Hare Airport will be increased from seven to 10 flights per week as of May 7, 2020. Service from Istanbul to San Francisco will also be increased from seven to 10 flights per week – but only as of June 7, 2020. 
Dr. Sharon Nachman, an infectious disease expert at Stony Brook Hospital, thinks that the virus will continue to spread and it will eventually infect everyone. “We think we’ll make antibodies that will protect you, we think the virus will not mutate, but on the other hand we are all probably going to get it,” Nachman said during a panel discussion livestreamed on Stony Brook University’s Facebook page on March 13.
Nachman explained that the ban of social gatherings is to decrease the number of patients coming into hospitals so that they are able to assist everyone that comes in. “The overflow of patients is what we are trying to avoid and that is why social distancing is so important,” Nachman said. 
Dr. Roy T. Steigbigel, a professor of medicine at Stony Brook University, recommended the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the most reliable sound of information and said that everyone should learn about the virus.