first flight during the pandemic

My First Flight during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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What is it like to take my first flight during the pandemic for non-essential travel? Emphasis on during not post-pandemic because post implies something is over. And let’s be real here. COVID-19 is far from over, especially in the US. Well despite this, I traveled outside my city for the first time a few weeks ago and took my first flight during the pandemic.

After quarantining at home for 4 months, I really needed to scratch my travel itch. Stir crazy would be an understatement. Places around the country were reopening despite warnings. It seemed like everyone I knew was getting out of town for the long 4th of July holiday weekend. I know I’m not the only one who was feeling the need to escape the house (or tiny apartment in my case) and decided “F*** it.” The current spike in COVID numbers tells a similar story.

After evaluating all the options and trying to figure out where to go last-minute, the boyfriend and I decided to jet down to Joshua Tree. Instead of driving 8 hours from San Francisco (and considering we’d have to drive back), we booked a flight from SFO to LAX 6 days before departure. We took a lot of things into consideration and decided to take the risk for a short haul flight (~1 hour).

We flew on United from SFO to LAX on an Embraer 175 (or ERJ-175) aircraft and for the way back, on a Boeing 737-900 aircraft (also on United) from LAX to SFO. Here’s what my first flight during the pandemic looked like. A few things were different and a few were the same.

First flight during the pandemic

6 Key differences

Empty LAX airport with no lines at security

1. No people. No lines anywhere – none at security (both TSA Precheck and regular) screening. I have never seen both SFO and LAX so empty, especially during a holiday travel weekend. No traffic to/from the airport. We got to SFO airport in half the time it normally takes. There wasn’t even that much traffic in LA. On the way home from SFO, there was barely any wait for a Lyft/Uber.

Airport bars and restaurants closed during the pandemic

2. Everything is closed. Not surprisingly, very few places were open. No lounges, no shopping, and no bars. In SFO, I only saw Burger King and Peet’s (a local coffee chain similar to Starbucks) open near my gate. I packed my own snacks in case I got hungry and so I wouldn’t have to wait in line at the few places that were open.

Social distancing sticker reminders on the jet bridge

3. Social distance and safety precautions are evident. Everything is marked. Every 6 ft, there are stickers on the floor to show where to stand in the line for security, stores, and on the jet bridge. Honestly, we didn’t even need to use them since there were no lines. People generally kept their distance even while waiting at the gate. I know from other people’s experiences, this is not necessarily the case in other airports.

The TSA agents all wear masks and gloves. The TSA agent checking your ID and boarding pass sits behind a plastic shield. There are hand sanitizer dispensaries everywhere, which were actually full.

Before take-off, the crew made an announcement about how United thoroughly cleans the plane before every flight. When I boarded my LAX-SFO flight, a flight attendant gave me an alcohol sanitizer wipe. I had brought my own disinfectant wipes too just in case. I definitely was not the only one to wipe down my seat, seatback tray, window, armrests, etc. Plenty of other passengers did too.

4. Everyone wears masks. You wear your mask through security and only remove it for a brief second when the TSA agent checks your ID. Masks are required during your entire flight and throughout SFO airport. So wear a mask. Seeing almost everyone complying really surprised me (low expectations for humanity based on the news). There were a handful of people who didn’t wear their masks properly over their nose and mouth but there’s always those rule-breakers… *rolls eyes*

Empty United flight from LAX to SFO

5. Flights were half full. Business Class was completely full but Economy had plenty of space. The flights felt very empty since there would only be 1-2 people sitting in each row on each side. I think the flights were at max 50% occupied, most likely less. There were no middle seats on my SFO-LAX flight since it was a smaller plane. But on my LAX-SFO flight, the middle seats were generally left open.

Because there were fewer passengers, there was plenty of overhead bin space for carry-on luggage.

I found the flight to be eerily quiet. No one talked. It seemed like the masks unintentionally prevented people from chatting with their travel companions. Or maybe this is due to fewer passengers?

Is it weird that I also found the flight attendants to be very friendly? Possibly even friendlier than pre-corona? They seemed chipper than before. Maybe it’s because they don’t have to deal with as many passengers, especially rude ones. Or perhaps I thought this due to my lack of human interaction over the past few months.

Or did I imagine these last 2 things all in my head because I haven’t been on a plane in so long?!?

Social distancing on the jet bridge during boarding

6. Follow new boarding and deplaning procedures. We boarded the plane by seat row (instead of boarding group) from the back to the front. So those in Business Class got on last and got off first. Most people actually followed social distancing around the gate waiting area and on the jet bridge.

When deplaning, they called 5 rows at a time and asked people to wait in order to aid social distancing. Most people actually listened and waited until the people in the row in front of them were about 6 ft ahead before they started to get up.

6 Things that stayed the same

1. Beverage service was still offered. I was honestly shocked by this, especially since it was such a short flight. The flight attendants still pushed a cart down the aisle asking if anyone wanted a drink. I declined since I didn’t want to remove my mask even to eat/drink and wanted to avoid the need to use the bathroom. Some airlines with longer flights are providing pre-packaged beverages/snacks. I brought my own snacks anyway as I usually do even if I’m not feeling hungry just in case.

2. Use a mobile boarding pass. I checked in online so I wouldn’t need to go to the check-in counters or use the kiosks in order to minimize human interaction and avoid frequently touched surfaces. I scanned my mobile boarding pass via the United app so I wouldn’t need to hand over a paper boarding pass to the TSA agent. At LAX, you didn’t even need to show your boarding pass, they just scanned your ID.

3. Liquids security check still in place. The only change due to COVID is you can now bring one liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 oz per passenger on your carry-on but you may need to go take it out for additional screening. Otherwise, no liquids, aerosols, gels, creams, and pastes in containers over 3.4 fl oz (100 ml), and everything must fit into a quart-sized resealable bag on your carry-on luggage. Medication and formula/milk/juice for children are still exceptions.

4. People who jump up as soon as the seatbelt sign is off. Yeah, we all know who those people are… They’re usually the same people who crowd the gate entrance or try to board before their boarding group (or now seat row) is called. Yup, they’re still acting the same on any flight during the pandemic.

5. Middle seats are still bookable. When I was booking my flight, I could reserve the middle seat on United if I wanted to. Thankfully, you can check a flight’s seat map in order to see how full it is before you book. Some airlines are allowing you to rebook your flight for free if it reaches a certain capacity.

6. Highly filtered air quality. I was not overly concerned about air quality because I have read several articles explaining that planes use a mix of recirculated air and outside air. The air passes through HEPA air filters similar to those used in hospitals. These capture more than 99% of the airborne microbes in the filtered air and would be similar to the air inside offices and other buildings, even homes.

Would I do it again?

Honestly, I felt pretty safe given all things considered. But I had such low expectations after reading about other people’s first flight experiences during the pandemic. I was quite nervous and anxious that we may have made a mistake to be so risky to fly. But overall, my flights were very smooth and actually, dare I say, pleasant.

Still, I will not be flying long haul flights, especially cross-country flights anytime soon. It would be uncomfortable to wear a mask the whole time for multiple hours (including traveling to/from the airport and waiting for your flight). A longer flight also means being exposed to more people for a longer period of time. It’s also unclear whether those flights are operating at full capacity. I’ve seen too many photos of packed flights, especially since some airlines are allowing people to book middle seats.

I am overly cautious since this was only my first flight experience during the pandemic. Who knows if it’ll be the same for the next flight, especially as more and more people become more willing to take a risk… I can’t control how other people act. I think we got lucky with the travelers on our flight who respected the guidelines and followed instructions like wearing a mask.

So for now, I’ll be sticking to road trips and traveling around the West Coast. I personally feel slightly more comfortable about flying during the pandemic if I need to but will still minimize flying. I’m not recommending flying or traveling. That’s a personal decision to make but I wanted to let you know what my first flight experience during the pandemic looked like if you’re trying to make the decision for yourself.

Be safe and assess the risk

We all need to do our own research and assess our own health, activity, and risk levels. Everyone will have different levels of risk tolerance. Do research on your destination and their rules. You may be traveling to/from a place that’s less/more restrictive and has a higher/lower number of cases. You might be immunocompromised and unwilling to take a risk. I’m not saying everyone should get on a plane now. Again, that’s a personal decision.

For me, I have only left home (where I live alone) to go to the supermarket and my boyfriend’s apartment (where he also lives by himself). I haven’t even gone out to exercise. 😛

I have only been out of the house 3 other times before this trip – 2 socially distant picnics with friends and 1 outdoor dinner with a friend when restaurants reopened for outdoor dining only. This brings the total people I’ve interacted with (besides bae and essential grocery store workers) to a HUGE number of 6.

I wear a mask every time I leave the house. And I am in fairly good health as far as I know. So I feel chances that I have COVID are low. Because of this, I was not too worried about spreading it to others and if I somehow am asymptomatic, then that’s why I wear a mask.

I haven’t gotten tested for COVID yet – whether before I flew or after I’ve been back since I don’t have symptoms. Some people may feel more comfortable by getting tested before and after they fly. I’m self-quarantining myself for 14 days since I’ve been back and *knock on wood* so far, no symptoms yet.

So be safe. Consult a doctor if you need to. Wear a mask. Assess your risk and decide if flying is a risk you’re willing to take at this time.

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