I just went through my calendar for January. 14 flights. Pretty normal for that time of year, given that I regularly travel to attend board meetings or visit clients. Then February. 9 flights. The Coronavirus Pandemic already is affecting several of my clients and investments in Europe and Asia. Then March. 5 flights – the last one on March 17, the week when all hell seemed to break loose in the United States. Then, after five weeks on the ground, 2 flights in all of April and so far 2 flights in May.
So…what is it like to get on a plane these days?
Well, I knew that things were going to be different when my phone rang on April 21, about 3 hours before what was to be my first flight after a five-week pandemic hiatus. I didn’t recognize the number and let it go to voicemail. It turned out it was American Airlines calling me. When I first realized this, my heart sank as I figured they were calling to tell me that my flight, which had already gotten “moved” twice, had been canceled.
But I was in for a sweet surprise. An airline representative was calling me personally to say that they were so pleased that I would be traveling with them later that day. In her voicemail, she also explained which parking garages and which security checkpoints at the airport were closed (almost all of them), that parking would be free, and what gate my aircraft was set to depart from. You may think I am making this up but I am not. In her very professional voicemail she also apologized for all of the airport retail outlets, coffee shops, and restaurants being closed (“just a heads up”), along with all of the airline lounges.
Needless to say, after listening to that voicemail, I did not expect to encounter many passengers on my flight. When I did arrive at the airport, I was the only passenger at a fully staffed security checkpoint. The agents actually seemed happy to see me. I was wearing a mask. So were they. I was asked to briefly take off my mask (more like lift it off on one side for a second or two) so they could check me against my picture ID.
When I arrived at my gate there were maybe 10-12 other passengers waiting, standing or sitting very far apart from each other. No flights were taking off from any nearby gates so I figured these were all folks that would be on my flight. Soon there was a new boarding announcement, explaining “socially distanced boarding.” Everybody complied without complaining. Boarding was complete within maybe 5 minutes, and I counted a total of about 20 passengers on a plane designed to hold about 210 passengers. As they were walking past me, I noticed that many of them wore badges and were airline employees flying to home destinations.
At this major international airport, it typically takes at least 30-40 minutes of taxiing until you get anywhere near the runway. Not that day. We were ready for takeoff and airborne about 6 minutes after pushing back from the gate.
The rest of the flight – about two and a half hours long – was uneventful. Very quiet. But forget about meal service or even snack service.
When I landed, it felt bizarre to walk through a completely deserted airport in bright daylight. The only time I had ever seen the airport this empty was after arriving at 2:00am in the morning on a much delayed flight. In that sense the sunlight combined with the deserted terminal were disorienting.
Since flying that day in April, I have been on three more flights and they have all been about the same. All domestic travel thus far. I don’t expect anything approaching normal in terms of international flights to resume until this Fall.
How have I felt flying?
First and foremost, I have felt safe and well taken care of. Both staff and passengers that I have encountered have behaved professionally, courteously, and respectfully. It seems that almost everyone understands the times that we are living in, how things may never be the same again, and that it is important to take care of one another during these unprecedented circumstances.
I hope that all of you stay safe, healthy, and sane. And if any of you have travel experiences from the past two months that you want to share, please do so by dropping me an email.