Coronavirus Safety While Flying
While the number of people traveling by air has increased over the summer, the recovery has stalled out a bit. More people have chosen to travel by car than by plane, as coronavirus safety while flying is more of a concern as much of it is out of your control.
This week I flew for the third time since the pandemic started, heading to southern Utah for work for a few days. Things have remained mostly the same in terms of safety and cleaning measures, but I wanted to detail my experience again, as many people still haven’t flown and might be curious.
Travel Activity During COVID
I was admittedly one of the earlier few hitting the skies during COVID-19 as travel rebounded. My first trip was in mid-May, when there were just 200,000 or so people per day passing through TSA checkpoints. I took a second trip in June by air with one of my kids. More people were flying at that point, but the numbers were still down.
Things have really picked up during the summer, though. I’d actually guessed that Sunday, July 26 might be the first day that TSA screenings pass the 1 million mark. Alas, this was unfortunately not the case. Travel has stalled through July, with the 2nd still holding the record for most people screened. With the increase in cases in multiple states, coronavirus has put a damper on summer plans for many.
However, there were far more people flying this trip than during my previous trips. The difference in traffic and attitude of passengers was noticeable. Here are a few ways the flying experience during COVID-19 in July is different than it was in May and June.
Airports Returning to Normalcy?
San Francisco International Airport was a complete ghost town the first time I passed through in May. I’d never seen it this way. There were barely any food vendors open, and no retail. The terminal was eerily quiet, with very few passengers.
Which is quite the contrast compared to when I stepped off my flight from Arcata on Sunday. At first blush, the airport seemed pretty dang normal. Walking out into the middle of the concourse, you wouldn’t have guessed there was a pandemic, given the number of people. Well, aside from the masks. Those are a giveaway. Mask usage overall was excellent.
Although Concourse F in Terminal 3 had far more people than I expected to see, it became clear that the crowding was likely due to a few flights deplaning at the same time. The number of people had dropped sharply by the time I’d grabbed a sandwich and headed back to my gate. However, there was that background buzz of conversation, and things still felt a whole lot closer to pre-pandemic travel than before.
More airport vendors were open, too. Previously, there was only one kiosk operating in the central atrium of Concourse F. Now the pizza place was open, and the Uncork’d wine bar was also in operation. Many vendors were still closed, though. At least the ones that are open now have a liquor license? It is weird to see Burger King serving draught beer.
What Social Distancing?
This was one of the clearest differences between this trip and when I flew in May and June. Previously, people were really good about following the six-foot spacing in lines, in the restrooms, and when walking around. The lines for the few restaurants that were open looked quite long because of this.
It was apparent that most people are much more lax at this point. For the most part, spacing was greater than “normal”. But we are talking maybe an extra foot rather than a true six-foot buffer.
I do wonder if this is an odd fallout of requiring face covering at the airport and on aircraft. Everyone was wearing masks except while eating or drinking, as this is required. But the social distancing isn’t happening quite as well, especially as crowds are increasing.
Flight Experience with United
Flying in a post-COVID-19 world has changed a bit since May and June, but some is the same: You board by row, not zone. Face coverings are required. The crew hands you a wipe as you step aboard for you to clean your seat, if you’d like. These were all things that United has been doing for months.
The one massive difference is that this was the first time I was seated next to another passenger who was *not* traveling with me. The seat map on the flight from Arcata showed some seats blocked when I’d booked the ticket (I think all C seats), so I booked myself in a D window seat. However, the load factor was over 50%. This meant lots of people had others next to them that weren’t traveling with them. On a tiny CRJ-200, this means you’re in really close quarters.
There is also drink service in economy once more, which was a complete surprise. I’m sure it hit the blogging news. But airline policies seem to shift every week in some way, and I’ve struggled to keep up. The service on my most recent flight with Delta was a pre-packaged bag with crackers, Biscoff, and a small water bottle.
Drink service is even an improvement. You get the whole can of soda!
Final Thoughts on Coronavirus Safety While Flying
If you’re wondering about coronavirus safety while flying, airlines are definitely taking many precautions. They are stringent about requiring face coverings, and cleaning is enhanced. You’re also given wipes to sterilize your seat and area.
But…there are some potential downsides that might cause worry, including the move by American and United to no longer block middle seats. United had called it a PR strategy rather than a safety strategy.
I’m sure people are split on the return of drink service in economy. I don’t think it is much of a risk, assuming everything has been sanitized and given that the attendants are wearing masks.
Overall, I personally don’t consider it risky to fly during coronavirus. Airlines are doing what they can to promote coronavirus safety while flying. However, you can never mitigate all risk, and I’m fine accepting that.
How about you? Are you considering flying during the pandemic?