It’s no secret, COVID cases are surging and the CDC has advised people not to fly. So what did I do for Thanksgiving? I flew from California to Massachusetts. I knew the experience would be different than my prior air travel, and I knew I would need to take precautions prior to the trip. Clearly, I’ve survived the flight, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’d advise others to fly during the pandemic.
In the weeks leading to the trip, I was hyper aware of the news and COVID updates. As the trip approached, there were many changes and I had to adapt to new regulations. This certainly wasn’t a carefree experience, and there were many more details to consider before boarding the plane.
Keep in mind, I am not an expert. Before I flew, I knew nothing about air filtration systems on planes and I held no special knowledge on virus prevention. All I knew was the information that’s been repeated for month and I wanted to be cautious as I flew. I also had to accept a certain level of risk and place some trust in the airline. My entire analysis of the flight is based on my personal experience and emotions toward the flight.
Before the Flight
I booked my Thanksgiving flight in April, months before I actually boarded the plane. At that point in time, guidance was very unclear and people seemed certain that we would go back to “normal” by summer. Of course, they were wrong, and I purchased flight insurance in case I needed to cancel. Now anyone can change or cancel a flight free of charge. That was not guaranteed when I booked, and I was told I could not get a refund on this insurance.
I flew JetBlue. This decision was based on a single fact: they have direct flights from San Diego to Boston. Safety wasn’t a major concern, because I really felt I’d be taking a carefree, maskless flight in November. However, I do have a certain level of trust in JetBlue from prior experiences. I’ve had positive experiences flying with them in the past and appreciated their in flight services.
For months, I just waited. I watched guidance regarding flights and I started to hear that most airlines would enforce distancing and require masks. In late September, I received an e-mail moving me to a different flight. It was still direct, but at an afternoon time. I was slightly annoyed at this point because I intentionally did not book this flight in April. Instead, I opted for the morning flight which cost a little bit more. So I called customer service and they moved me to a redeye flight that would leave San Diego on Friday night and arrive in Boston Saturday morning. This solution was satisfactory, but the change alerted me I would need to pay attention. Every time a new restriction surrounding COVID was implemented, airlines would need to adapt.
A couple weeks before my flight, the state of Massachusetts introduced new travel regulations requiring visitors from certain states to quarantine for fourteen days or produce a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the flight. I found out about these regulations exactly fourteen days prior to the flight, and at that point a complete two week quarantine was not realistic. So, I opted to get tested the Wednesday prior to my flight. Keep in mind, these tests are not always free. In fact, a self-elected COVID test was going to cost me $65. Still, I got tested. It came back negative and I never left my apartment between Wednesday morning and the time I left for my flight.
I filled out all the paperwork stating I completed this test, but I never had to present it to anyone or verify my results. There were no enforcements for this test/ quarantine policy other than a threat of a $500 fine if I failed to comply. Regardless, I am glad I was tested knew I was not spreading the virus when I flew. If I had a positive test or symptoms, I would have cancelled my flight because I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s diagnosis.
The Day of the Flight
About two hours before leaving my apartment, I went online to check in for my flight. I noticed the checked bag I paid for was not on my boarding pass, so I had to call customer support. After 30 minutes on hold, I reached a customer service rep. She was very kind, and added my bag to my boarding pass. When my original flight was switched, it seemed my checked bag became disconnected from my pass. Of course, I wish this didn’t happen. I wish a customer service rep would have called me back, rather than forcing me on hold while 80’s music played. However, I knew I would need to roll with a few punches during this flight, and I was glad I caught the error before reaching the terminal.
Then, I had to get to the air port. I masked up and had a few extra masks in my carry-on luggage. Plus, I had enough hand sanitizer to cover my whole body. I had to Lyft to get to the airport, my first ride-share experience since the pandemic began. This experience was totally fine, I sat in the back seat, and had the window cracked the whole time. It was just me, the driver, and our masks.
When I arrived to the airport, I went to drop off my checked bag. Fortunately, there were no further complications here. Lines were really short, and the employee seemed to know I was going to Boston. Come to find out, there were very few flights leaving the airport at night. Anyone who has been to the San Diego International Airport knows there are two terminals. One is larger, but the other is super small. I was in the smaller terminal meaning there was less foot traffic.
There were no lines at airport security, which is a flier’s dream. Again, this was because there were only a couple more flights leaving that night and I got there two hours before my flight was boarding. This is always my least favorite part because it feels so rushed, then there’s never any places to put my belongings back in the bags. This stress was reduced due to the limited number of people, and I spent no more than 5 minutes at security.
I experienced two oddities due to the pandemic. When checking my license, I had to remove my mask and stand at a distance. There was plexiglass between me and the TSA employee. Also, my hand sanitizer was taken and tested. It was then returned, but it was taken away from the traditional conveyor belt. I’m glad I had the hand sanitizer because I still had to touch all of those bins and I didn’t see any sanitization process for them.
Inside the Terminal
If you’re afraid of interacting with other people during the pandemic, the terminal may be a bigger concern than the plane itself. When I got there, I immediately noticed how distanced everything was. Many seats were closed off, tables were limited, and there was very little action.
Whenever I take a redeye flight, I usually get a coffee beforehand. All of the restaurants in the terminal were closed, and this was at 8PM at night. If you wanted any food or beverages, you needed to go to the convenience store. Otherwise, you were out of luck. I did get a bottled drink and a snack, then I found a place to set up camp in the terminal.
Only three of the gates actually had flights scheduled for the remainder of the night, so it was easy to find some space to myself. I opted for space by a gate with no more flights for the evening and just sat there for about an hour. Every other seat in the terminal was blocked, and some places were basically devoid of people.
I had all the space I needed until it was time to board. If you’ve ever taken a flight before, you know people get really antsy. JetBlue was calling people by row number rather than the letter on their ticket. The back rows went in first then we moved forward. I believe there were four groups called (other than their premium Mint group and people with special needs) and I was in the third.
Throughout the boarding process, I was constantly reminded I needed a mask. There were markers on the ground telling us where to stand so we had spaces six feet apart. Of course, this seems to be really hard for people. The person behind me was not honoring this system, and no one was enforcing the policy. Fortunately, it was quicker than average to get on the plane. This is likely because there are fewer people, but that doesn’t mean there are no crowds. People still gather as if the plane will leave sooner if we stampede onto it.
On The Plane
As I was boarding, I quickly noticed almost every middle seat was empty. A couple rows were full initially, but after everyone boarded there were enough empty seats to keep all middle seats empty. I had an aisle seat and the middle seat was empty. The window seat was taken by someone, and I was happy to see he was masked and had disinfecting wipes.
My seat was really close to the middle of the plane. This was good, because there were a few empty rows surrounding the emergency exit rows. No one was allowed into those rows, for reasons that remain unclear to me, but I was fortunate to have no one sitting in the row behind me due to this decision.
Once everyone was in their seats, I was pretty happy with the distancing. My only complaint was the child in the row in front of me. There was a young couple with a toddler, and of course he was not wearing a mask. Logically, I know it would be hard to keep him in a mask for five hours. I also know the virus doesn’t discriminate and he’s just as susceptible as anyone else. Fortunately, he wasn’t a crier, and I was able to ignore him at times. I knew young child were exempt from mask rules, but I would be lying if I said this didn’t make me a little more nervous.
Beyond the child, there we very few reasons to be concerned. I had a heightened sense of awareness toward any cough or sniffle, but there weren’t too many. Guest were offered beverages and a small selection of snacks. I took a bottle of water, though I didn’t want to remove my mask to drink it. After about an hour, I did take a sip. I faced the aisle, took my mask down, sipped, then put my mask back up. Those were the only moments when people didn’t have a mask covering their noses or mouthes.
After you’ve been seated, you’re stuck in your one spot. I didn’t get up to use the bathroom, stayed in one place, and it was pretty much regular flying from there.
After the Flight
We landed and we were told to remain seated. Once they let us know which luggage carousel our bags were being sent to, we began to deplane. I expected to remain seated and be dismissed one row at a time, but the flight attendant told us to get up and start exiting the plane. It seemed odd that this wasn’t more organized, and I get the impression this was not standard protocol. There was another flight attendant shaking her head at this announcement. Luckily, most guests were organized and moved one row at a time. I felt the process was as distanced as could be expected, but I expected employees to facilitate the process more.
I was also surprised that my luggage was at the carousel once I arrived. Maybe I was just lucky, or this was a result of my plane landing at 4:45AM. Regardless, there was no waiting in a herd of people to collect items.
Then I left.
After flying, I did carry a slight sense of anxiety. I felt I did everything I should have done: maintained as much distance as I could, wore my mask, and washed or sanitized my hands often. Still, I was worried that I could have contracted the virus. Plus, the news in late November was not painting a promising image.
Thanksgiving came, and I was fine. Then a week passed. Then two. By that point, all regulations would suggest that I was fine and did not get sick while flying. I didn’t see a lot of people in those two weeks, but I was very transparent with the few I saw. I told them I would mask and distance if it made them feel more comfortable. I even offered this to direct family with whom I’d be sharing a home.
Did I Feel Safe Flying?
I certainly feel JetBlue did a good job. Some policies should have been enforced more strictly, most specifically the distancing policy when boarding. I also would have felt more comfortable if the unmasked population, regardless of age, were placed in a specific area of the plane. But at the end of the day, I am fine and felt the trip went reasonably well.
Much of my comfort had to do with the availability of open spaces and the lack of lines. I wasn’t anticipating this, and I credit this more to the fact that I took a redeye flight than anything else. When more people are passing through the airports, I would think policies would be harder to enforce. If you’re trying to avoid crowds, perhaps consider a late night flight. Fewer flights will be scheduled late night, meaning the terminal will be less crowded. Just remember this might mean restaurants and stores may be closed.
The most challenging part of flying for me was instilling trust in my fellow passengers. I have faith JetBlue will take regulations seriously. Will my neighbors? That’s less likely. I saw a good number of people (distanced away from me) talking the phone with their masks off or standing close to other guests. Even after a few layers of security, there will be some people who want to follow their own rules.
Should You Fly?
Remember, this is just my personal experience. Overall it was a positive one, but I would try to avoid flights. The amount of contact is higher than average and you’ll encounter a lot of people. Once I was on the plane I felt pretty safe. Even the CDC says planes have strong air circulation, making it hard to spread the virus, but that doesn’t mean the terminals are safe.
If I’m being completely honest, I missed my family. I talked to them before my trip, and I decided to take the risk. If you find yourself in my position and choose to fly, do everything you can to ensure you’re protected. Have multiple masks and hand sanitizer. Try to reduce bathroom visits and exposure to places where people touch many items. If you wear gloves or a face shield, you won’t be alone. The only thing you can’t wear is a mask with a filtration system.
I also can’t say my experience with JetBlue was flawless, but they did well where it mattered. I feel fine as I write this article, and at the end of the day, I don’t care about changed flights and having to call customer service. The safety of myself and the people around me matters most, and I felt that was taken seriously. If I have to fly in the future, JetBlue will be my airline of choice.
Now that the flight is over, the most important message is to take the precautions seriously. Some people may be flying for Christmas, and I am in no position to criticize them for that. By flying you’re accepting some level of risk. That doesn’t mean you ought to throw caution to the wind. Do your part to slow the spread and let others know you’ve flown. Don’t be offended if people are hesitant to see you, and monitor any symptoms you may have. This can make a huge difference for the mental and physical health of others.
Originally published at https://www.michaelbeausoleil.com on December 11, 2020.