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Coronavirus

Safety and anxiety mix as Narita prepares for more flights

Tokyo gateway adopts new precautions with travel restrictions poised to ease

A passenger's temperature is taken before boarding a Tigerair Taiwan flight at Narita Airport. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

CHIBA, Japan -- A group of five students fidgeted while standing in line at Japan's Narita Airport as a safety officer pointed a contactless thermometer at one of them.

Even though the entire process takes just seconds, the students, who were visiting the Tokyo area on a long four-day weekend, looked tense as they waited for their friends to get the go-ahead from the officer. Relief washed over their faces as one by one they passed the screening with flying colors.

"Awesome, we can all go home now," one of them said as they headed to the security checkpoint.

Scenes like this that played out at the airport's Terminal 3 late last month are expected to become more common as Japan looks to resume international business travel. Narita Airport, one of the main travel hubs for the Tokyo area, has already begun to make changes to keep travelers and workers safe in the coronavirus era.

It has been standard procedure for international arrivals at Narita to undergo thermal screening to catch potential illnesses. But the airport began requiring similar scans of domestic passengers in May to prevent them from spreading the coronavirus during their flights.

Those with a temperature of 37.5 C or above show up in pink on the thermal cameras, and could be denied boarding depending on what airline they are flying.

Very few people can be seen at Terminal 2 of Narita Airport, which services mostly international flights. (Photo by Hiromoto Deguchi)

An announcement urging passengers to keep their distance from others played repeatedly throughout the terminal in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. "It's a little hard to listen to them warn me over and over to be careful. Maybe I should have just stayed home," said one traveler.

Traffic at Terminal 3, which service mostly budget carriers, has recovered somewhat from the height of the outbreak. But Terminal 2, which is mainly for international flights, is still largely empty. Staffers sitting at counters with masks and face shields seemed to have little to do. And when they had customers to deal with, masks and plexiglass barriers made communicating harder than it normally would be.

"I feel bad that it's so hard to understand us," said a female staffer after giving directions to a foreign traveler. "But there's nothing we can do except try to speak louder."

Some chairs inside the terminal were blocked off to ensure social distancing. The airport's website and social media accounts outline instructions for minimizing infection risks as well.

In preparation for a recovery in travel, Narita Airport plans to offer self check-in to more passengers, and to set up a system that shows how crowded different queues and checkpoints are. The goal is to reduce passengers' close contact with each other and with airport workers.

Terminals 1 and 2 are also now conducting antigen tests that uses saliva and can yield results in about an hour, compared with the roughly six for polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.

"The new test is easier on subjects, and can be conducted on a much larger number of people," said a Narita quarantine officer.

The coronavirus "is the worst possible scenario" for the aviation industry, said Akihiko Tamura, who heads Narita Airport's operating company. It remains to be seen how well the gateway handles the new normal once travel starts to fully regain steam.

Correction: This story initially contained a misleading reference to the use of masks by foreign travelers, which is now deleted. 

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