Back Into the Skies

What it’s like to fly in today’s COVID world

I’ve missed flying.
At least, I’ve missed the excitement and anticipation of jetting off to faraway destinations, to warmer climates and places unknown. Shuffling in snaking lines through crowded security checks, dodging oversize carry-ons and outstretched legs, trying to find a seat at an overflowing departure gate while bombarded by endless PA announcements? Not so much.
So when I had a reason to fly from Detroit to Phoenix at the end of June, I was happy to get back on board and see how flying had changed in this new COVID-19 age.
A couple of days before take-off, I was reassured by Delta’s CEO, himself, that the airline was taking steps to keep me safe and healthy. Good to know. Unsure of how procedures had changed at airports, I arrived with plenty of time before boarding.
I needn’t have worried. Where was everyone? For a 9 AM flight, the airport is usually bustling with passengers like ants out of a nest. I have a habit of scanning security lines, trying — and inevitably failing — to figure out which one will most likely get me through the fastest.

Today, however, there was no competition. No more than three people were in line at a time. New plexiglass barriers separated me from the TSA agent, who asked me to lower my mask for facial recognition. Two seconds later, my mask was back on, and it didn’t come off again until I was safely in my rental car bubble 1700 miles, four hours, and three time zones later.
Most airport stores and restaurants remained shuttered, with chairs stacked up on tables. A few were open for business, I noticed, as I wandered through the concourse. There was no need to dodge oncoming passengers and luggage. With a couple notable exceptions, everyone wore masks.
A glance at the electronic departure boards revealed flights filling only half of the seven screens. It was a stark reminder of the day’s reduced business, compounded by the rows of empty seats at the silent gates. When my cell phone buzzed, it was to inform me that my aircraft had been cleaned and sanitized. Nice.

We started boarding, beginning with passengers from the rear of the plane. First and Business Class passengers were allowed to board at any time, but to me, that seemed to run contrary to the attempt at minimal contact. Sensibly, however, most waited until the end to board. The entire process was nothing like the usual scrum to race on-board, and I am encouraged that perhaps we will behave more civilly in the future.
A masked and gloved crew member greeted us at the aircraft’s entrance, handing out hand sanitizer. I’m not a germophobe, but I found myself eagerly wiping down my tray table and TV screen. I was not the only one.
Unlike some airlines, Delta has committed to keeping the middle seats open. This excellent decision not only added to the comfort of the flight, but also reassured us of our safety.
There was no cart service on this 3.5-hour flight; instead, attendants gave us sealed bags with a small bottle of water, a bag of almonds, a Biscoff biscuit, and a single Purell wipe. There was no coffee or anything else. Later in the flight, we received the same package all over again. This was a small disappointment. With all the emphasis on passenger safety, I felt attention to the customer experience had slipped a little.
Upon landing in Phoenix, we were to deplane by row (haven’t we always done it this way?). But, for a small minority, old habits got in the way. As soon as the Captain switched off the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign, they were off, jumping out of seats to stand in the aisle with no regard for social distancing. Invasion of my personal space is not something I care to have – not before and certainly not now.
Yes, I miss flying, and if this is what life in the skies will be like for the next few months, I’m good with it. But I sure do miss my coffee.

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