Flying During Covid-19: Was It As Eerie As Everyone Says? Here Is My Experience

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flying during COVID-19

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.

flying during COVID-19

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.

Travel essentials during COVID-19.

Boarding

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.

flying during COVID-19

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.

flying during COVID-19

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.

flying during COVID-19 SFO

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?

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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27 COMMENTS

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27 COMMENTS

  1. I have no problem with folks flying right now. I understand that there may be a need to do so; and, I appreciate that as my livelihood depends on folks traveling to fields afar.

    For me, the journey is as important as the destination. I enjoy the inflight service even if it is not always the best. I enjoy having Bacardi and OJ when sitting in the metal or composite tube. I do fly up front mostly but do sit in cattle class too. I also gladly pay for the Bacardi back there too! Bring back the food and beverage service; that is when I’ll consider flying again.

    • Loss of meal and drink service is a bummer. I know they were eliminated out of an abundance of caution. But flying business or first right now would be a bummer without these for sure.

      Now that the CDC is saying the virus doesn’t transmit as well as we thought over surfaces, maybe there’s hope for the near future? I know the airlines will be slow to reintroduce these, as they are saving money.

  2. Most people dying are people of color so most people in America wouldn’t care because it has not hit home for them, they dont know someone who has been infected and recovered or died. I bet if your devil may care attitude got someone close to you sick, then that 1% suddenly doesn’t seem so small anymore.

  3. George, “What about the 98.6%? Why are you only focused on the 1%?” Some care about both. Those that dismiss the catastrophe that is unmitigated pandemic clearly don’t care about anyone but themselves. But that’s the thing, crappy people will be crappy people.

    • We do need to care about both. Finding the balance is the hardest part, as people are going to disagree where to settle that is “safe”. But…with 51%+ of the travel industry unemployed, the economic suffering becomes a solid argument for easing restrictions.

  4. I agree with George.
    I really enjoyed flying during the last 2 months. It was great the upgrades clearing on every transcon.

  5. You do realize you’re wearing your mask inside out? The colored side is meant to be on the outside, and the “fan”s should be fanning out if you’re wearing it the right way

    Otherwise you’re letting droplets into your face but preventing them from exiting from your mouth…

    • Lol. No. This was the first box we bought. But…given that I’m not concerned about contracting the virus myself and wear a mask solely for others’ comfort, that might be the correct way for me to go?

    • Maybe that could explain why most of the replies on this thread, on social media, or the news – appear to be written by people who lack common sense, critical reasoning, or the ability to do the simplest of arithmetic.

      A good theory Gene! Makes sense with some of the replies here. Everyone’s brain has been rotted by decades of normal heroine use. It’s ‘pretty common’ says Gene.

  6. @Carl Pietrantonio

    Incorrect, please try again. Hundreds of thousands of people a DAY are flying in the US. For fun.
    For vacation, to see their friends and family.

    It’s growing every week. Two days ago, it was 340,000 Americans flew.
    So, not only is it ‘not nuts’
    But, it’s very very common, and growing.

    You can say whatever you want, and be scared of your own shadow.
    But, the facts don’t agree with you, even remotely.

    • @George Ok, math wiz. 340,000 Americans flew 2 days ago. Which is what– 0.1% of the country’s population? And the other 99.9% chose not to fly? So you’re going on every blog to rant about how normal an activity is that 99.9% of people aren’t engaging in? For comparison, an American is 5 times more likely to have tested positive for Covid-19 than to have flown 2 days ago. And 340,000 is NOT a normal number of Americans to be flying on that day.
      And I say this as somebody who will be flying for leisure in a couple of days. But I’ll refrain from bragging about it on every blog out there. And good for you that must carry dozens of passports, but most international borders are closed to American passport holders whether they want to go or not. Seriously, I’d like to see a list of the 60+ countries and which ones were after March 15.
      @Ian Thanks for the report on a flying experience that appears anything but normal from your photos and descriptions.

  7. @R Johnson – flew out of DEN yesterday after a long weekend of sun and Mexican food.
    Easy trip, and easy flights back and forth. Zero drama.

    @Jeff – do you know 30,000,000 (30 million) people have died naturally in the last 6 months in the world?
    Just, normal deaths? Covid is at 400,000, which is 1.3% of total deaths in the last six months.

    If you’re interesting in stopping your entire life, and the lives of those around you, for what killed 1.4% of people in the last 6 months…… What do you have to say about the other 98.6% who didn’t die of Covid?

    Serious question. What about the 98.6%? Why are you only focused on the 1%?

  8. Anyone flying right now that does not ABSOLUTELY have to fly is nuts. Period.

    If you MUST fly, mask on at all times except for TSA. If people near you don’t and the airline says they should, speak to an attendant and insist that either they or you be moved farther away.

    • I had one across from me. I didn’t overhear his conversation with the FA, but it didn’t end with him wearing a mask. And we still flew. I’d be prepared to encounter some people not wearing them.

  9. @Geroge: Paying attention to 100,000 deaths in the US, and making sacrifices to prevent another 100,000, is not irrational. The science of how this spread is clear and what you do is either irrational, selfish, or worse.

    • With how widespread things are now, travel cannot be incrementally all that more risky than, say, going to the grocery store. At least domestically. It’s funny to look back at some of the early articles (Feb, early March timeframe) that were against the travel bans, saying they wouldn’t be effective and that we’d missed the window for implementing them.

  10. Next trip for me is July 3 to Denver. We’ll have to see what Colorado allows – it looks like it’s community by community. To me it’s 50/50 that we will actually go.

    • I have a trip planned to Denver a couple weeks prior. Sure hoping it works out as well! Depends on the event.

  11. I fly every week, for fun (essential to me, I say) – and have been since January.

    Aside from less stress, everything being smoother and easier with less people.
    It’s not notably different than flying in 2019.

    It’s really not worth writing about if you ask me.
    Get on the plane, sit down, take off, land and off you go.

    The last 3 months have been some of my absolute favorite travels in my life (60+ countries and counting)

    Anyone scared of flying right now please stay home – forever. It’s much more pleasant without irrational people in the air 🙂

    • @George. Well said. I agree. Flying now is so much easier than pre-pandemic. For those who feel that their life or the life of someone they love will come do an end because if flying… please stay home. Don’t fly and then post pictures online because the place has more people on it than your comfortable with.

    • I can totally see why this isn’t newsworthy if you have been flying. Most haven’t, though, which is the main reason I wanted to write.

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