I love airports. I love to watch people from all over do what they do there because it feels like a moment of shared anticipation among strangers. I miss that feeling and I miss jetting off somewhere myself, but I am really nervous about traveling during coronavirus — not just about the safety of air travel, but also about the experience. I know that I can catch a flight right now, at least domestically, but would it be fun, or an unnecessarily nerve-wracking experience? Before I find that out firsthand, I decided to talk to some people who have gotten onto a plane during this pandemic — for whatever reason — about their experiences.
“Entering an airport for the first time in three months with gloves and a face mask was definitely not an experience I thought I would have when I planned my travels for 2020,” Paige Bryan, a 23-year-old in Miami, tells me. Bryan says that she and her younger sister passed through TSA in record time and felt comforted that most people at the airport in Fort Lauderdale were wearing masks. Birmingham, her destination, was another story. “I noticed a lot fewer masks worn by travelers, despite airline regulations,” she says. “It felt incredibly awkward to be one of the few people wearing a mask, as if we were doing something wrong in trying to keep ourselves safe.” Ugh. ‘Murica.
“I flew from Spain to the Netherlands last month, during the full lockdown in Spain,” says Sanne Wesselman, a 34-year-old from the Hague, Netherlands. “The airport felt strangely quiet,” Wesselman says, describing it as eerie. His flight was the only departing flight of the day, and all the passengers respectfully kept their distance from one another until it was time to board.
“It felt incredibly awkward to be one of the few people wearing a mask, as if we were doing something wrong in trying to keep ourselves safe.”
Appropriate distance wasn’t possible once they boarded because the flight was full, and Wessleman tells me that he was surprised at the lack of safety measures. “I noticed bottles of hand sanitizer as I walked through airport security and we were asked to keep our distance, but that was it. “No questions were asked about our health and no temperatures were checked,” he recounts.
Not everyone I spoke with experienced a lack of restrictions, though. “Before boarding the flight at the Dubai International Airport, we all had to undergo blood tests,” says Phillip Weiss, a 36-year-old from Portland who is currently quarantining in London. Weiss is a digital nomad, and he was working from Thailand when the pandemic hit. He flew through Dubai trying to get to London, which is about as close to his Portland home as he could expect to get, given the international travel restrictions. His blood test was negative, and he says he did feel safer knowing that everyone on the plane had also been tested.
The arrival process in London was lengthy, Weiss says. “As an American, I usually don't have many questions asked at customs in any country, especially the U.K. This time around, the customs official interrogated me on my travel history. Unfortunately for the other people in line, it took longer than usual for me to get through the interview because I had been through several countries in the past five months.” Weiss made it through customs and has been able to couchsurf with friends in London, but he says it’s weird for him to be stuck in one place.
While ghost town airports can be depressing, several people told me that feeling less crowded at the airport relieves some of the stress of flying right now. “The lack of people at the airport made me feel less at risk for germs,” Christine Wang, a 31-year-old in San Francisco tells me. Wang had to travel recently to Dallas to help out a family member. “I felt safe and not at direct risk of contracting the virus,” Wang says. Her pandemic journey was strange, but not particularly remarkable, she tells me. “Travel for me is usually full of excitement and anticipation but this time around, there was more stress and worry.”
Slashed airline schedules also play a role in how comfortable flying is right now
Some travelers found themselves worrying about the decisions other passengers were making. “I was pretty disturbed at the amount of people who went to the bathroom during my flight,” says Isabella Persico, a 26-year-old from New York who recently flew from Chicago back to her home city. “Some of the same people went multiple times,” she says, “You would think people would try to minimize the amount of places they expose themselves to during a flight.”
Slashed airline schedules also play a role in how comfortable flying is right now. “The airline I flew cancelled every other direct flight to New York that day, so it felt like everyone from the cancelled flights poured into mine,” Persico says. She has originally been assigned a middle seat, but requested to change before boarding. She was lucky in that regard. “You could tell there was a lot of anxiety in the flight, as a majority of people were sitting directly next to other passengers.” Persico notes that overbooking is no fault of the flight attendants, who tried to lighten the mood by handing out goodie bags with snacks and wipes. Well, I guess if you can’t keep people safely distant, at least you can keep them from getting hangry.
People’s stories definitely answered some of the questions I have about traveling right now. Is it doable? Yes. Is it safe? Literally no one knows. Is it pleasurable? Probably not, unless high stress and blood tests are your idea of fun. Road trip, anyone?