Are Summer Crowds Making Flying Less Safe During COVID-19?

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Coronavirus Safety While Flying

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.

Coronavirus Safety While Flying

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!

Coronavirus Safety While Flying

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?

Ian Snyder
After igniting his passion for award travel while planning his honeymoon, Ian now enjoys using points and miles to see the world with his wife and three internationally adopted kiddos. He loves dissecting loyalty programs to find maximum value. His goal is to demonstrate that extraordinary travel is possible for the ordinary family.

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15 COMMENTS

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15 COMMENTS

  1. Why do people like Tom bother posting here ! So sick of people like him shaming others for what is by all means a personal choice. No one is endangering your life Tom because TOU are not there!!

  2. We are considering international travel right now. I’m concerned about arrivals at international locations where we might have the queue up for a long time to clear immigration, or the close quarters at baggage claim. Coming home, I think global entry will get me through without crowd contact. Still debating and feeling quite indecisive.

    • Crowds in airports are definitely a concern. And certainly not predictable. Hopefully the queuing is managed well.

  3. Ian, like yourself, my wife and I have been flying and will continue to fly. We did take the pause like most others with our first trip back in the air being in June.

    I agree that airlines are doing what they can. I agree with folks who think it’s too risky to fly and I also agree with those who take precautions and carry on as well. To fly or not fly has been debated far too many times. I think like any other situation, a person has know their own risk tolerance be decide accordingly.

    I’m not for shaming those who do or don’t fly. My wife and I understand the risk and liken it to the fact that we’re not any safer at the grocery store where we may or may not be surround by folks who have flown or even have partaken of a peaceful protest. My point is that we’re not really safe (or unsafe) no matter where we are so we’re carrying along cautiously.

    • Thanks for your comments. There is risk, for sure. But aside from staying home 100% of the time, there is COVID risk in nearly any activity. We shop in person all the time. I don’t see this as a whole lot less risky than flying.

  4. I think I read the other day that Delta is banning masks that have an valve (opens during exhale). This seems like a “duh” move to me, but I’ve yet to see others follow suit (perhaps they should even be taken off the market or restricted for now?). Ian, what are your thoughts?

    • They are banning these. I was flying United, and I honestly didn’t see all that many. Given that these are typical masks used for other uses, I can’t see them being taken off the market. They just need to be marked clearly that they aren’t helpful for COVID-19 protection.

  5. I’m flying to Aruba in 2 weeks on Jetblue. They have committed to leaving all middle seats open through the end of Sept.All planes have HEPA filtration air quality is not a problem. It’s the airport itself where the greatest chance of catching something occurs. If planes were the vector where transmission occurred, a worldwide pandemic/mortality event ie ebola would have occurred years ago. A infectious disease specialist I know told me flying is fine as long as you wear your mask plus use a face shield especially in the airport.And of course wash wash wash hands.

  6. Flying is not safe. Period. I know many “careful” FAs who have come down with it, and you are putting your life in the hands of the person next to you who may/may not care or think this unbelievably contagious airborne virus even exists. No freaking way.

    • You’re always putting your life in your hands. But that is where the personal risk assessment comes in. I have zero fear of contracting COVID-19. If I end up getting it, I’ll certainly quarantine and not spread it.

  7. Personally, I consider it extremely risky to fly right now, and I would never submit myself or my family to that risk unless I had a specific, life-saving mission that required the trip. For the great majority of passengers, flying right now is risky, foolish, and exhibits a cavalier attitude that endangers us all.

    • If that’s the risk you see, then staying home is the right decision. At this point, I don’t see any greater risk than our weekly activities.

    • Is your risk any higher or lower when you’re out in the grocery store? After all, I don’t know you and you don’t know me…. but could have flown on Friday, attended a protest on Saturday and right behind your in the grocery store on Saturday.

      I could have been reckless and picked over all the apples and then squeezed peaches to check firmness.
      Maybe not washed my hands as I moved about the produce area while picking over ever green leafy product.

      I would have taken my mask off the moment I walked out of the grocery store and sneezed and I made my way past the door handle on your car.

      Point is, risky is everywhere, not just planes. But at least the air in a place is passing through some kind of filtration system whereas the grocery store and the apples you’ll eat have not.

      And don’t tell me you’re washing your fruit in Dawn dish detergent because I’m pretty sure most aren’t that cautious.

      By the way, don’t touch your mail because the mailman and his hands have been everywhere. Same goes for the Amazon packages and the door dash delivery guy who also doubles as an Uber driver during the downtime of his day. After all, his car and passengers are as clean as a whistle.

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