My First Time Flying Again After Covid
Updated: Sep 8
Flying during a pandemic is definitely different. And I definitely don't recommend it. If you are planning a trip or will have to fly in the coming months, read this post to be prepared for what you can expect while flying.
NOTE: First of all, I suppose this technically isn't my first time flying during the pandemic. I flew to Bali when so many questions still remained unanswered, and a lot of speculation and differing information and opinions were being thrown about. When borders began to close and the landscape changed drastically in just the 5 days I had been in Bali back on March 12th, I had to fly home amidst the pandemic as well. But this was this was the first time I've flown since being quarantined at home for the past three months. Here is my account:
Finally, it was happening...
After staying at home for the past three months, I was finally getting to fly somewhere again. I haven’t been on a plane since I was in Bali in March, when I had to fly home emergently after borders were beginning to close around me. My first time flying again was for work—NOT for a vacation—but I have to admit, the newness of the situation had me excited and also a little nervous.
On June 24th, 2020, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning (an hour before my alarm), like a little kid excited to take their first trip to Disneyland. I think nerves might also been the cause of that, because I knew I would be facing so many unknowns. Would the airport be busy? Would the plane be full? Would people be abiding by social distancing guidelines? Could I eat on the plane? Would others be wearing their masks? Once I got to Atlanta, would things be normal or not? I had so many unanswered questions.
I didn’t know what to expect exactly, but after seeing news report after news report about empty airports that look like ghost towns, I had assumed I would arrive to find an empty terminal, with empty TSA lines and an empty plane. And armed with a recently confirmed negative Covid test, taken in the past week, I had assumed it would not only be safe for me to travel but that I would be clear to feel as though I wouldn’t risk infecting anyone else. Boy was I wrong.
A lot of things are different in airports these days. But perhaps not as different as you might think. Here are the things that were different, as well of the things that stayed the same:
Here’s what’s different:
▪️ There was no traffic getting to the airport.
The nicest thing about our travel morning was that there still wasn’t any traffic on the freeways, and it took just a little over an hour to get from my home in Ventura to LAX, which usually takes two hours at that time of day because of morning commuter traffic. Not only were the freeways empty, but there was no traffic once we arrived at the terminals either. That was a very nice change of scenery.
▪️ Masks are required.
Though I didn’t see any signs about masks at the entrance, it was clear immediately upon arrival that we were expected to wear masks. Officers in uniform were standing outside the terminal and were all wearing masks themselves. It’s possible there were signs, but I didn’t see any. And since I was wearing a mask, no one stopped me and told me I needed to put one on. Everyone I saw, from the moment we got out of the car to the moment we stepped on the plane—were wearing masks as well, clearly following the newly issued California order to wear masks in public, as well as the requirement by the airline to wear a mask or risk being banned from flying.
Guests were also required to keep their masks on while boarding and keep them on while they were on the plane. I never saw any of the airline staff actually say this to anyone though—not because it wasn’t the rule but because, quite surprisingly, everyone was following the rules. There were no recalcitrant individuals bitching and moaning about wearing a mask. Perhaps this is because they were warned—well in advance—by the airline that if you refuse to wear your mask, you won’t be able to fly. I must’ve gotten three or four emails prior to my trip explaining all the things Delta is doing to “keep [us] safe” and also kindly reminding me that a mask is required to board the plane.
So basically you will be required to wear your mask from the time you enter the airport until the time you leave the airport in your intended destination. I did, however, have to remove my mask for a brief moment while the TSA agent checked my ID. Other than that, it was on pretty much the whole time.
▪️ Most stores and restaurants were closed.
I’m not sure if this was because it was still pretty early in the morning (around 7:30 am) or if it was due to Covid, but with the exception of a Starbucks and just one restaurant, all other restaurants, shops and sundry stores were closed.
▪️ Hand-sanitizer was provided throughout the airport.
There were dozens—if not hundreds—of hand-sanitizer dispensers strewn about the terminal. They were everywhere, which was nice. There definitely could not be a scenario where you were forced to go searching for one. Plenty were provided, and you definitely did not have to bring your own.
▪️ Social distancing was encouraged.
Signs that I do recall seeing—and they were EVERYWHERE—were signs saying to maintain at least 6 feet of social distance. These seemed to be everywhere you looked. They were posted on the walls, there were icons on the floors to help people understand where to stand in lines, and there were reminders on the digital boards.
I made sure to emphasize the word “encouraged” above because, well, although social distancing was encouraged, that does not necessarily mean it was enforced. People pretty much still congregated as they wanted. Though most clearly made efforts to try to social distance, when it came time for seats to be called upon boarding, all rules pretty much went out the window. Though the airline staff reminded people over the PA system to stay at least 6 feet apart, some individuals just ignored it. No one seemed to cause any problems though, so the people who appeared in a hurry and wanted to rush to board the plane were just allowed to go by by the other individuals who were making greater efforts to stay 6 feet apart.
▪️ There was no traditional food and beverage service.
We were not offered the traditional food and beverage service on our flight. Alcohol was not available at all, and the menus that you can typically order food from were glaringly absent. Since it was a bit of a longer flight (over 4 hours), each individual was handed a “snack pack”, which included a small bottle of water, biscuits and a small packet of Cheese-its.
▪️ Each passenger was handed a Purel towelette after getting seated.
Not sure what this is supposed to do if they are in fact sanitizing the plane ahead of time (as they said they did), but it was a nice touch. Presumably, after boarding the plane and possibly having to touch the overhead bins, seat arms and seatbelt buckles, you were given a complimentary disinfecting wipe that you could use to wipe off your hands, as well as the area around you. Then, not long after getting everyone seated, someone came around with a trash bag and collected all the used wipes.
▪️ Middle seats weren’t filled.
Yes, the airline stayed true to their word and didn’t sell the very middle seats on our plane. HOWEVER, it really didn’t seem to help much—particularly since our flight was pretty much full otherwise.
I flew Delta, and was in one of their Comfort+ seats. I actually had tried booking first class but, much to my surprise, it was full. I thought when I was booking that must have been because it was a smaller first class (with only about 8 seats). I was surprised to find that their first class was a much larger one on this plane, with around 30 seats. Now, only half of these were filled, so that is presumably also why first was full.
Hawaii is one of the few places that Americans will be able to travel this summer, starting August 1. All you need is a negative Covid test in the last 72 hours, and you can travel there without having to quarantine.
The seat configuration in economy was a 2-4-2 setup, and most of the seats on the ends (where there were two together) were full. This is presumably because these individuals are in assumed to be in the same household or group because they are flying together. The only seats that weren’t filled were seats D and E—the two seats in the middle set of four. Though that might sound good in theory—and is actually quite good to separate the individuals in seats C and F—because in most cases seats B and C and then G and H were filled, the people on the aisles still only had a couple feet of space between them. So in theory it’s great, but in practice it’s ineffective.
And as I mentioned, the flight was nearly full. They clearly sold all the seats except those in the very middle so it really felt the same as most busy flights. If someone is sick or coughing nearby to you, there is surely no way of preventing exposure.
▪️ There was no priority boarding.
I actually had a seat in the first row in Delta Comfort, which was seat 10A. With my ticket purchase includes “priority boarding”, though there was no such thing as priority boarding on this flight. They boarded from the back to the front, and in 10 row increments. So while I normally would halve boarded first for economy (right after first class), that actually meant I boarded last.
The only reason I really ever care about priority boarding is because I almost never check a bag, and like having my carry-on with me. On normal flights that are actually full, this means that if you board last you often have to check your bag since they’ve usually run out of overhead bin space by the time the last group of people board the plane. Thankfully though, because they did withhold several of the middle seats, that meant there was plenty of overhead bin space, even after boarding dead last.
First class still boarded first, but then the remainder of the plane was boarded from back to front.
▪️ Lounges are all closed.
If you’ve grown accustomed to going to a lounge where you can enjoy a free drink, comfy chair and free Wi-Fi prior to your flight, those days are over… and probably for a while. Most—if not all I believe?—airlines have closed their lounges, and none of them (to my knowledge) have announced an anticipated reopening date. The fact of the matter is, a lot of the traditional amenities that you can often enjoy at a lounge (shared newspapers, a buffet for food, self-serve cocktails and other beverages) won’t be returning anytime soon.
Here’s what was the same:
▪️ The TSA security lines seemed the same.
Though there were signs still telling people to maintain 6 feet of distance, there were no icons on the floor to help people know where to stand and the TSA agents didn’t do anything to encourage it. People would congregate together—both in line waiting to get checked and while putting bags on the belt and waiting to get scanned—and the agents not only didn’t do anything to stop people from getting close to each other, but in my opinion seemed to make matters worse by asking people to come forward and get in line when there was not really any space to do so and still keep 6 feet of space.
Bins were handed out like normal and exchanged hands several times. I did not see them get cleaned before or after being touched by people. TSA agents were wearing gloves and masks, but we all know that doesn’t make any difference if each traveler is touching the same bins to put their stuff in and go on the conveyer belt.
There were, of course, still the same amount of annoying travelers who weren’t prepared, kept their cellphone in their pocket, forgot their bottle of water in their bag, etc. Some things will never change.
▪️ Some people still weren’t socially distanced.
Human nature is, well... human nature. While most people were abiding by social distancing guidelines, some were not. There were still people walking around with their mask hanging from one ear as they slurped on a venti Frappuccino. There were still people who insisted—unnecessarily—on standing too close to you.
I suppose it’s possible in an airport to ensure everyone is truly socially distanced. Yes, there were signs everywhere and yes, most people seemed to make efforts to stay 6 feet apart, but some just didn’t. While most people stayed 6 feet apart prior to boarding, a lot of that went out the window once people started lining up to board.
I have to give some credit—prior to the flight boarding, when everyone was either sitting or standing around near the gate, most people really were socially distanced. This was certainly made easier by the fact that we appeared to be the only flight leaving at that time. Had there been other flights taking off around the same time, it would have been very difficult to keep social distance because there wasn’t anywhere to go. A lot of the people from our flight were sitting in the areas for other gates, which certainly made it easier to stay distanced. I’m not sure if this is an intentional effort on the part of the airline or not, but it definitely helped.
That was my first flight though. I can’t exactly identify what could have made the first so different from the second, but the two were night-and-day different. While people on the first flight seemed to be making efforts to socially distance, many people on my flight home did not make any efforts whatsoever. Why do you think that is, you might ask? Well, unfortunately I think it’s become a political issue… (see my next point).
▪️ Social distancing and wearing a mask is a political issue, and environments are definitely different depending on where you are physically located in the US.
Again, whether or not people were socially distanced and wearing their masks was completely different in Los Angeles versus when I was in Georgia. And on my flight back (from Georgia to LA) people seemed A LOT less likely to want to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Here’s my assumption—and if you don’t like it, feel free let me know—but the difference seemed to be very political. The first flight, which flew out of Los Angeles, was going from a place where just statistically people are more liberal, and since our current administration has made wearing a mask and social distancing into a political issue, an observation I have had is that some people think that if you are politically liberal, you should wear a mask, while if you are politically conservative, you don’t wear a mask.
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Well, on the flight back, where we were flying from Georgia—a largely conservative state—it was very apparent that the mask thing was a political issue. The MAGA hat toting individuals were the first to take their mask off on the plane (only to be given gentle reminder to put it back on), the first to hop into line to board after several announcements not to crowd, and the first to blatantly ignore requests by the airline to allow the row in front to grab their bags and get 6 feet ahead in the aisle before standing to get your bags.
On the flight back, we actually had a situation where—after THREE different announcements—two individuals who were visibly upset that they were “forced” to wear masks not only didn’t follow the rules about deplaning but physically pushed people out of the way and passed a bunch of rows instead of waiting their turn, waiting to stand up and get their bags until the row ahead of them had proceeded forward, as had been asked of them. So you see, we have this horrible combination of a human issue (people are just plain stupid sometimes) and also a horribly political issue (because we have a president who not only refuses to wear a mask but also discourages his supporters from following proven medical advice and simply wearing a mask and social distancing out in public).
My point: it is NOT a political issue, for fuck’s sake. Please just wear your mask please. Especially if you are traveling. Traveling—particularly right now—is a privilege, not a right. So just wear your damn mask.
I made a conscious choice to travel and understood the risks going into it. Ultimately, though I wouldn’t say I felt particularly “safe” I am also not high risk and am not one who is known for being particularly cautious. HOWEVER, I will say that the conditions in place probably were not really helping to prohibit the spread of the virus at all. As I mentioned earlier, if someone was sick on the plane near me, there is no question that I would have gotten sick. People take their masks on and off to eat snacks or drink water, so I’d say it’s very unlikely that each person kept their mask on the entire time. Certainly I think these social distancing measures help, but if people are still traveling, the virus will still get spread. It’s that simple. If you choose to travel, please just know the risks, and do not be under the misimpression that blocking off middle seats or requiring masks on the plane will protect you. It probably won’t.
Will I be hopping on a plane anytime soon again? Probably not, unless it is more of an emergency.
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