My Experience Flying During COVID-19
Ever since coronavirus stopped the world in it tracks back in March, I’ve been dreaming about flying again. This three-month stint is my longest on record without stepping on a plane in at least three years. I’ve been flying roughly every month for work or leisure, sometimes solo, and sometimes with the kids. But a little over a week ago I put flying during COVID-19 back on the table as travel has started to pick up a bit.
This week I took a quick getaway to Tucson for a few days of hiking, followed by a couple days in central California performing field work for my job. Some of the flying was necessary, as there were literally no rental cars available where I live. So flying to SFO for work was the only option. The trip to Tucson was planned prior, but it worked out well to mix the two. I’ll detail only the flight back for Tucson, although the experience across all the flights was generally consistent.
Arrival at the Airport
I returned to the Tucson Airport Rental Car Center about an hour before scheduled boarding time. Check-in was easy and quick, and there were only two Budget employees working that I saw, both outside and inside. I masked up once inside. It isn’t required in Arizona, but it is recommended and most people were wearing them.
Heading into the airport, it was nearly as quiet as when I’d arrived a few evenings prior. There were a handful of people in the security line. The airline queues were essentially deserted. Tucson is unlikely a super busy airport on any given day, but this was less than even I imagined it would be like.
Security was a breeze, and PreCheck was still an option, even though there wasn’t a separate line. I’d joked with my wife before my flight out that they’d probably ask me to remove the mask to make sure my face matches my ID. Well, this is exactly what the TSA asks!
Once through, I spotted my E175. There were all of two United flights remaining that day, one to Denver and the other to San Francisco.
Vendor and Restaurant Options
Just past the security checkpoint was a sign detailing which vendors are open in the Tucson Airport. I’d seen a similar one at SFO. Most places were closed. Dunkin’ Donuts, for example.
But just across and down the concourse, a restaurant was open for sit-down dining. This I did not expect. Although I’d eaten out at sit-down places a couple times while in Tucson, I did not expect any place at the airport to be serving seated guests.
It was a welcome surprise. I ordered, sat down, and the food and drink were both brought to me. Guests did their best to stay separated. The servers and cooks all wore face coverings.
By the time I made it to the gate area, there were only a few minutes before boarding. Both gates A7 and A8 had United flights at nearly the same time, and this was the busiest section of the airport. Still not busy.
Boarding the aircraft wasn’t done by United’s typical zone. People were invited to board the E175 five rows at a time, back to front. I was seated in the back row, so I was among the first to board. Keep this in mind if you’re wary about traveling on an airplane. You’ll be first on and last off, and hopefully least exposed.
Masks are mandatory (at least in theory) on United Airlines flights. Almost everyone wore one, and they have them if you need one. However, there weren’t any temperature checks. A flight attendant provided sanitizing wipes to everyone when they boarded, something I hadn’t experienced the previous two segments.
Overall, the load factors of the flights were reasonably light. The flight from Tucson to SFO was maybe half full. It didn’t seem most people had a seat mate, but almost all rows had people in them. The other flights were a hair lighter. But there were definitely more than a handful of people.
Experience on the ERJ-175 from Tucson
The actual flight was uneventful. United has suspended all in-flight service, even water service, at least on their regional flights. On one of the flights, small water bottles were served, but this was on only one of the three I flew. The Tucson to SFO flight featured…nothing.
I do want to mention that two of the guys across from me refused to wear face masks. I don’t while outside, but I have been whenever I’m in close quarters inside or a business mandates it. United’s policy is that you must while on an aircraft unless you have a medical condition that makes this unsafe is some way.
San Francisco’s Quiet Hub Airport
I wrote about my layover at San Francisco on the way to Tucson a few days prior. Terminal 3 was more quiet than I’d ever seen it. Terminal E on my return from Tucson had a few more people, but it is a far cry from the previous normal. Travel has picked up a bit, but still hardly anyone is flying during COVID-19.
Barely any vendors are open in the terminal. You can list them on one sign, located just past security. The unfortunate thing is that means everyone congregates at the same vendors. Situated between the two arms of the terminal, Burger King was especially popular.
I walked through to International Terminal G and then exited into the main hall. This is the quickest way to get to the BART station, in my experience, and I prefer it to taking the AirTrain. The rest of my time in the greater Bay Area was spent at a job site before returning home at the end of the week.
Final Thoughts on Flying During COVID-19
If you’re worried about traveling during the pandemic, I feel that airlines are doing a decent job at taking all reasonable precautions. Sure, they could probably space people out more during boarding and deplaning, but then again, it’s really up to passengers to social distance during this process.
On board, the reality is that there is simply no way to put 6 feet of space between all passengers without a ridiculously low load factor. Airlines would need to block all seats but windows on a narrowbody, and would need to block at least every other row.
If you’re nervous about traveling by plane, I’m absolutely not advocating that you do so right now. There is no official “all clear” that has been given. But at this point, I don’t expect that a clear end date will be provided. Everything will be gradual, with some parts of the country starting to reopen now, others later. I was not questioned in any way about where I was traveling or why. A few travelers seemed apprehensive, but overall, most seemed at ease.
Flying during COVID-19 is certainly interesting. The flights themselves were on time and uneventful. But the facial coverings, lack of service, and dearth of people at airports made it a strange experience.
Have you flown in the past couple months? What was your experience?