The world has changed since the last time you stepped on a plane. At least I know it has for me.
Travel came to a screeching halt this spring as coronavirus spread across the globe. After plummeting to record-low numbers in April, it's clear that more and more Americans are ready to travel again as the number of travelers has steadily risen. I joined those ranks this week for a work trip, flying from my home in Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Washington, D.C.-Reagan (DCA) and back.
Even as coronavirus case counts spike across the country, the demand for travel is growing. Beyond considering your health and the health of everyone around you, part of making an informed decision is considering what it's actually like to travel during this pandemic. We think it's part of our duty to show you.
Aside from wearing a mask at all times and constantly washing (or sanitizing) my hands, I took some extra precautions for this trip: I recently tested negative for COVID-19, and plan to get tested again soon to be safe. In the meantime, I'm self-quarantining at home just to ensure I don't risk spreading any possible infection.
We'll have plenty of stories and YouTube video in the coming days and weeks, breaking down the trip. But here are some key takeaways on what it's like to fly during coronavirus from my first trip in this strange new world.
Masks are Mandatory; Most Obey
Let's start with the good news: From start to finish, almost everyone I came across was wearing a mask.
I'd guess that about 75% percent of fellow travelers walking throughout airports were wearing a mask during my trip. It was much better on the plane: Through four hours of flights on two different airlines, I didn't see a single passenger without a mask on. And I never saw signs of a struggle with a flight attendant.
It probably doesn't hurt that airlines recently promised to step up their enforcement of mask policies, threatening to ban flyers that refuse to wear one. Nonetheless, it was reassuring.
I don't care who you are, how healthy you believe you may be, or whether you've decided masks must be yet another political debate: Just wear a damn mask. It's one of the easiest ways to help prevent the spread of a virus that has turned the world upside down and killed more than half a million people and counting.
Besides, that entire (pointless) debate stops at the boarding door: Airlines are free to turn away any travelers who refuse to follow their rules. Just as they ban smoking and require seat belts, they can require masks in-flight, too.
No Problems at Security
You're dreading the long lines. In my experience, there's no need to worry.
At both airports, I whisked through security in about two minutes.
Having TSA PreCheck and CLEAR certainly helped – I especially liked CLEAR's completely touchless process this time around.
But even standard security lines were never more than 10 to 12 people deep during my trip. Both airports had helpful space markers to make sure travelers gave each other space in the queue.
Of course, just what you see at security will depend heavily on when you're traveling.
TSA has made some major changes to the airport security process, and that shows too. To limit contact, travelers no longer need to hand their boarding pass and ID – you can just hold them up. Many (but not all) agents were behind a small plexiglass shield.
And the TSA has done away with that pesky 3-ounce liquid limit – but only for hand sanitizer. You can bring a 12-ounce bottle of sanitizer through security.
More Space But Spotty Social Distancing
Airports are empty.
Sure, the number of daily travelers has steadily increased to more than 600,000 a day on busy travel days. But that's still just a fraction of the norm. And it shows throughout the airport.
Not a soul in sight at Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) airport on Tuesday evening
I flew on a Tuesday, and Tuesdays are typically somewhat lighter than the peak travel days: Sundays, Mondays, Thursday, and Fridays. But it was still eery (and also a bit comforting) to see so few people in an airport.
The same was true at Washington, D.C.-Reagan throughout the day. Day in and day out, this terminal is generally pretty crowded. Not so anymore.
Yet with all this extra space, people still struggle with social distancing. That was evident at check-in kiosks in Minneapolis on Tuesday morning.
And travelers definitely didn't give each other six feet of space during boarding. It didn't help that American Airlines didn't provide space markers at their gates in Minneapolis.
Lounges are Even Emptier
Nowhere is this emptiness more jarring than in airport lounges.
Airport lounges are the playgrounds for well-traveleed business flyers. And while travel demand may have started to recover, these business travelers are staying home.
Anyone who frequents Delta's primary Sky Club at Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) knows how crowded it can get. Over the course of my hour-long visit this week, I saw a grand total of six other people – and three of them were Delta lounge employees.
In some cases, you won't be able to get into your favorite lounge at all. Airlines have closed many of their clubs across the country. American Express has shuttered all of its Centurion Lounges during the pandemic, with no sign yet of when they may reopen. Escape Lounges are all temporarily closed, too.
Where you can get in, prepackaged cold foods have replaced the buffet setups. The best you can do is some do-it-yourself cereal or oatmeal packets for breakfast and some prepackaged sandwiches or salads for lunch.
This spiced chickpea flatbread from Delta's DCA Sky Club was tasty, but I wouldn't count on a lounge for a full meal.
Bar service with free drinks was still operating at both Delta Sky Clubs I visited.
Fewer Options at the Airport
It's always a struggle to find a cheap bite to eat at the airport. Now it's a struggle to find a bite to eat, period.
With traffic so low, many storefronts, shops, and restaurants at airports are closed down. Take a look at how many locations are marked closed with red text on the directory for Washington, D.C.-Reagan (DCA) airport.
In general, coffee shops and fast food options were open while many (if not most) sitdown restaurants were closed during my trip. In Reagan's National Hall before security, every single restaurant was closed down – only Chik-Fil-A, Qdoba, Starbucks, and Dunkin Donuts were open.
Choose Your Airline Wisely
Coronavirus has changed the entire travel experience. But that doesn't mean it's changed evenly.
From how often they fly to how many seats they sell to their safety and cleanliness measures onboard, U.S. airlines have chosen their own paths to respond to the pandemic.
Chart from the Seattle Times
Read more: From Masks to Cleaning, How Major U.S. Airlines are Handling Safety During Coronavirus
So I flew two different airlines to compare their approaches: American Airlines out to Washington, D.C., and Delta Air Lines back to Minneapolis. And in some ways, those two airlines represent opposite ends of the spectrum.
That's most obvious in one regard…
Empty Middle Seats Matter
Let's get this out of the way immediately: An empty middle seat won't make you safer.
Space between you and your nearest neighbor gives you 18 inches to 20 inches, at most. That's a far cry from the 6 feet public health officials have asked us all to observe.
But it could make you feel safer. And for me, that mattered.
Delta has promised to keep middle seats empty until at least Sept. 30, 2020, and a few other airlines have done the same. Indeed, the seating chart for my Delta flight showed all middle seats throughout economy (and half the first class seats) were blocked.
Sure enough, there was a space between me and my nearest neighbor.
Meanwhile, American Airlines has said it will start selling 100% full flights today, July 1. United has been doing that for months. Both companies have insisted an empty middle seat won't make a difference. Of course, that approach helps them make more money per flight.
Like the rest of you, I've spent much of the last four months avoiding close contact even with my friends and family – let alone complete strangers. The thought of bumping elbows with a complete stranger is almost chilling.
As I watched the cabin on my American Airlines flight fill up, I decided to pay $35 for an extra legroom seat to ensure I had some empty space around me. To me, that was well worth it, especially as I looked back to an 80% full flight.
Without the assurance that I won't be seated next to a stranger, I'm not sure I would fly again.
Don't Expect Much Service … Or Any
The days of drink and snack service from the cart rolling down the aisle are gone.
Airlines have cut back to all but the bare essentials on in-flight service. It's a way to protect flight attendants by limiting their interaction with passengers – while also cutting some costs, too. Alcohol has disappeared completely from domestic flights, though Delta will start to change that this week when it resumes serving beer and wine to premium cabin passengers.
But once again, what you get will depend on who you fly with.
During the course of my two-hour flight with American, flight attendants offered passengers absolutely nothing. No water, no cleaning supplies, no snacks. Aside from coming through the aisles to collect garbage twice, I hardly saw the flight attendants at all.
That's just fine – it's a short flight. But it's something to be aware of: You'll want to bring your own water or snacks.
While my seat was clean, it was clear flight attendants weren't cleaning the plane's sole lavatory between visits. Whether they should is another question…
It was a different story with Delta. A flight attendant gave me a small sanitizing wipe right as I boarded the plane. Soon after takeoff, a flight attendant came through the cabin with small plastic bags with a small water bottle, pita chips, almonds, Purell, and a napkin.
It wasn't much, but it stood out compared to my American flight.
I'm no expert on cleaning aircraft, but Delta's Airbus A319 certainly seemed spotless to me. And while the bathrooms weren't perfect, they had obviously been looked and cleaned up between visits.
Read more: Delta's Making a Big Bet on Safety. Will it Pay Off?
Is it Safe to Fly?
In all likelihood, yes.
Airlines have stepped up their cleaning procedures in a big way, as have airports. Planes' air filtration systems are perhaps second-to-none, constantly cleaning the air inside the cabin while pumping in fresh new air, too.
But just because it is safe doesn't mean it will feel safe. And just because you can travel doesn't mean you should.
Once again, this is a decision that only individual travelers can make for themselves. Keep in mind that travel goes far beyond the airplanes you sit in and the airports you walk through. It's about the bars and restaurants you may visit, what activities you plan, and what precautions you take in these places.
This is also about more than just you. It's about your community: the people around you; the others that they, in turn, spend time with; and the elderly and vulnerable.
Can you safely fly? I think so. Should you? That's up to you.
That's the only word I can come up with to describe more than four hours of flights. I've flown hundreds of thousands of miles in the last decade, yet this trip felt entirely foreign.
Air travel has changed drastically in the last few months. There's no telling when it may return to normal – if ever.
It sure did help, you being among the scouts!.
I can’t believe you stepped foot on an American Airlines aircraft. Much less their regional jet partner.
Yeah, you’re smart to quarantine for the next 14 days.
Good story, good information and well written. I’ve become an avid fan of Thrifty Traveler the last few months. I almost always find your articles interesting. I’m a writer and photographer, too, though mostly retired. I’d love to get back out there and travel, but am likely to wait until perhaps next winter. Regards from far off West St. Paul.
Thanks much for the kind words, John! Totally understand you on weighing the desire to get back out there vs waiting.
Thank you so much for your “walk through”. I have a trip planned next month flying Alaska Airlines. I have always found them to be a great airline. I have always traveled with wipes and hand sanitizers. I guess people have forgotten that MRSA jumped over to be community acquired several years ago. thought I had everything covered, apparently not. I’m going to check for travel sized lysol spray, as it will be a long trip.