Is it safe to fly? Flying during a pandemic with American
What was it like flying during a pandemic? Is it safe to fly? I took a transcontinental flight on American in July and, in short, it was terribly stressful. You thought flying before the pandemic had become an unpleasant grind? You haven’t experienced anything yet. Pack your sanitizing gear, personal protection gear, and choose your airline and seats as carefully as possible. Read what my experience was like in July 2020.
“You’re going to fly?!?!”
That’s what a lot of my friends said, in one way or another, prior to my transcontinental trip in July. Yes, I said, I am…. I tried to sound confident about staying safe flying during a pandemic. Not to say that Michael and I didn’t question the safety of flying – even as late as two days prior to my departure we questioned the trip viability with the number of coronavirus cases in the United States rising.
Back in California now after returning a few days ago from two weeks in Maine and flying cross-country during a pandemic, I’m well and feel fine — so far. I did however get a COVID-19 test three days after my return just to be sure. So, I’ll try to answer the two most pressing questions: how was the trip, and is it safe to fly?
Flying is not fun
What was it like flying during a pandemic? In short, it was terribly stressful. You thought flying before the pandemic had become an unpleasant grind? You haven’t experienced anything yet. I am a frequent flyer and have been for decades. Flying is second nature. We fly so often that we know the counter agents at our regular airports. This trip however was to be my first in 114 days – likely the longest time between flights for me in many, many years – and there would be invisible goblins waiting to pounce around every corner.
You can of course take precautions for a flight – I took so many I felt a bit like a crazy lady. But no matter how many precautions you take, how many times you slather on hand sanitizer, how much you sanitize surfaces around your seat, if you end up with somebody sick within a few rows of you, touch the wrong thing (and then your face for example), or somebody walks around the flight coughing or sneezing, you could be the next unlucky traveler to catch a germy souvenir from your flight, especially during a pandemic. And then there are the anti-maskers who despite requirements to mask up work so hard to find ways around the rule (you’ve all likely seen the videos on social media).
Granted, airlines are taking precautions and doing more cleaning – or so they say since you can’t really see it. And things were generally a lot better on my return flight July 24 after American announced it was tightening its requirements to wear masks. Let me be clear, this story is about my one round-trip experience on American Airlines in July 2020, traveling from Sacramento, Calif., to Portland, Maine. I flew through Chicago on the way out and Charlotte on the return. I can only judge the four flights I had and the attendants and gate crew associated with them. Note, too, that as a very frequent flyer, I had been upgraded to first class. That however doesn’t mean any fewer dangers, germs, or empty seats for distance!
Packing and preparation for flying during a pandemic
What I packed in my carry-on bag was a lot different than usual – Besides the normal TSA 3-1-1 liquids bag, I had a large bottle of spray-on alcohol-based (70%) hand sanitizer I was going to use to spray on my seat area, armrests, windows, and anything I might touch. I had also decided to go that one extra step, and I had purchased a low-profile pair of safety glasses to go with my mask protection – as you can see in our lead photo. No, I did go completely crazy with a hazmat suit! There are limits! I also had a small pack of disinfecting wipes, a small bottle of hand sanitizing gel, tissues, as well as my own collapsible Hydrapak water bottle that I would fill once past security. And I made a point of wearing pants with a side cargo pocket so my tissues and gel would always be close at hand.
Before dawn on July 10, then, there I was walking through the airport toward my flight from California to Maine on American Airlines. I was thrilled and excited to be able to travel again. But I was also anxious and concerned about 10+ hours sitting in planes, maneuvering airports, dodging people, staying as distanced as possible from others and picking up a rental car. In fact, I was feeling jittery as I waved good-bye to Michael at the curb. “I’m nervous,” I told him. Then I took a deep breath, turned, and rolled my bag into the terminal. “Here goes,” I thought.
Prior to and after booking in late June, I had spoken to American Airlines representatives several times and was reassured they were taking every step possible to keep middle seats empty and passengers spaced. Plus, they’d be enforcing a mandatory mask policy, I was told and as I’d had seen on the website. I was in fact on the American website prior to departure checking occupancy and my seat several times a day. To minimize as much contact as possible, I had selected a bulkhead window seat – of course, my late upgrade meant I had less choice in seating.
For the flight out, I discovered American’s reassurances were all smooth but empty talk. Just a few days after I booked, American announced it would as of July 1 start booking to full capacity – forget distancing, it was all about the ka-ching. Plus, American was still boarding by groups and not back-to-front as other airlines were, meaning my upgrade to first meant 200+ of my best friends would be walking right past me.
Is it safe to fly? Stressful with anti-maskers and crowding
First, however, came the airport and boarding. People seemed to be trying to distance by family groups in the airport, but I saw my share of anti-maskers standing with shoulders back proudly (One in my departure airport wore a T-shirt that read, “Everything is my fault,” with his mask cavalierly hanging from his ear – yea, like, really?). Of course, as soon as American started to board, all that attempt at distancing flew out the window. (Of note: I was listening to Delta board a flight at the next gate, instructing people to board back-to-front to lessen contact.) For my flight, people started immediately jamming together. And if I tried to step away from somebody, the person would just step closer again. What I call the Distancing Dance. My nerves were jangled.
Upon upgrade, I had managed to claim a window seat in the back of a small first-class section, and I struck gold in that the seat next to me was empty. First-class was 62 percent full (10 of 16) seats, but economy was about 70-80 percent full, with fewer in the front “premium” economy section. Nevertheless, that meant most people had somebody next to them and middle seats were mostly occupied. Like I said, not for the weak of heart, paranoid, or unhealthy.
Soon after boarding, attendants announced there would be no food or drink service on this early morning flight of nearly 1,800 miles and about four hours. However, in first-class, they handed out a glamorous-looking “snack bag” – with a tiny bag of pretzels and a small bottle of water knocking around in it. Even without that water, I was already wondering if I could make it the entire flight without using the tiny bacteria-ridden airplane bathroom. Nope, impossible, so instead, as soon as the seat belt signs went out, I leaped up to use it before anybody else had managed to leave their coronavirus droplets in the air during use. Then I just promised myself I’d wait till my eyes turned yellow before dashing to the bathroom at my transfer airport.
Knowing that food service would be non-existent, I had packed along a little fresh and dried fruit, a few nuts, and a protein bar. Wanting to keep my mask on as much as possible, I was very glad I had these snacks – nibbles were also easier to quickly shovel into your mouth and then pull your mask back down. That meant eating was a task of survival. I felt like a monkey, furtively shoving something into my mouth with little fingers and then chewing it quickly. And I can’t tell you how many times I’d try to stick a pretzel or almond in my mouth WITH my mask on!
American Air flight attendants at their worst
What was truly bothersome on this flight was the lack of flight attendants making any kind of effort to check on you, even occasionally. Once they got you seated, checked seat belts, and handed out the highly touted joke of a snack bag, the attendants disappeared, never to be seen again. I understand they want to minimize contact, too, but it is their job to check on compliance with the mask requirement. I saw any number of people – including a flight attendant! – wearing them under the nose, but also just slipping them off completely (the people in front of me!) or wearing them as the proverbial “chin guard” fashion statement. American Airlines needs to do a much better job at monitoring its mask requirement!
On my layover, I discovered most stores and many restaurants were closed, so trying to find something to eat on the run was very difficult. I knew I could not make it another four hours without something else to eat. But beware: Many places in the airport are handing you a pen to sign credit card slips that have obviously not been sanitized, and I didn’t see the guy where I found a snack box wash his hands between people.
One flight down, one to go: Boarding was chaotic at best, and this flight was “100 percent full,” per the boarding agent. Ye gawds!!! In fact, first-class was 100 percent occupancy, and economy only had a couple of seats available, meaning it was packed to the gills. Distancing? A joke. I had been upgraded into an aisle seat – not the best place for minimizing contact as people crowded down the aisles — and at the last minute a large person draped with bags, sweating profusely and breathing hard, rushed on to claim the seat next to me. I started to get up to let her past, but she started to squeeze past me: “Oh no, it’s ok,” she said. As I scrambled to avoid her, I quickly replied, “Oh no, no, it’s fine,” ducking my head and trying to get out of her way. Later during the flight, she coughed and then stuck a lozenge in her mouth – leaving me clinging to the opposite side of the seat.
And yes, deplaning was just as chaotic as boarding – jammed aisles, no controls by the attendants to have people sit and try to distance more. Just like it always was – except this was flying during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One side note: A woman at my destination who flew from Arizona told me when everybody on her American flight started to stand up en masse to deplane upon arrival, the attendants ordered everybody to sit down and not jam the aisle to minimize contact. Was my experience or her experience the exception or the rule?
Two glorious weeks in Maine – now comes my return flight
Thankfully, I stayed healthy after my flights on July 10 – assuming I was not asymptomatic – and now it was time to dare the dreaded flights home. Traveling in Maine had been a great break, and Mainers seemed to take pride in doing the right thing during the pandemic, but here I was headed back to the airport on July 24 for two more American Airlines flights home to California. Honestly, I was dreading the long day.
Two days earlier, I had received an email from American stating it was expanding and strengthening its face mask requirements, although it would not go into effect for five more days. For whatever reason, however, passengers on both flights were generally more diligent about wearing face coverings correctly and constantly, as were attendants. Plus, the flight attendants on my second, transcontinental leg were attentive, wearing their own masks properly, checking on passengers, wearing gloves when needed, and offered sanitizing wipes with a beverage.
Even everybody in both airports I transitioned through (first Portland, Maine, and then Charlotte, N.C.) was generally wearing masks and making some attempt at distancing – difficult in a crowded airport with people going in all directions. That’s not to say you don’t have the dumb-as-a-brick types: For example, waiting to board my second leg, I was standing distanced from another person, when I suddenly heard a voice practically at the back of my neck. I whipped around and saw a guy talking on his cell phone right behind me, so I took a couple of steps away. His response? To take two steps back closer to me. So I took two more big steps away and, yes, he took his own steps back toward me – hello, this is not a “Mother May I” game here, since the answer would have been a big “NO.” So I interrupted his call and said, “You know, this is NOT a line,” when I really wanted to say, “Dude, back the truck up!”
Finally, we were sitting on the plane getting ready for five+ hours across the country. Get this: First class was 100 percent booked, while economy was no more than 50-60 percent, meaning many had a row to themselves. I almost wished I was back in my pre-selected bulkhead window seat with a row all for me. As on my outbound flight, food and beverages were limited: We had a tiny fruit and cheese snack in first-class in American Airlines, which was still terribly awkward to eat since you are supposed to minimize the amount of time with your mask off. In economy, there was no food, snacks, or beverages.
As with all four flights, I popped on my safety glasses prior to boarding. Then, once boarded, I went through the ritual of spraying alcohol-based hand sanitizer on all surfaces I might touch. As I started on the second leg, I sighed, and said aloud, “Here I go again.” That’s when the man next to me fished out his wipes and said, “Yup, time for the ritual.” Of note was that I found a veritable lake in the overhead bin that had apparently been left behind by passengers on the prior flight – meaning cleaning is not all that American Airlines is saying it is. Luckily, I discovered it early, and everybody could leap up and save their bags and electronics! Then I spent my 5 cross-country hours clinging to the window trying not to breathe.
After my arrival in California, Michael picked me up, and we used my alcohol spray to douse all my luggage. I also had extra clothes tucked into the top of my suitcase so I could change out of my airplane apparel in the airport before I got near him or into the car.
Would I fly again with COVID-19 cases still rising?
Yes, I was excited to have traveled after 3½ months at home. But would I fly again? Hmmmm…. The trip wasn’t comfortable in any way. My flight days were long, anxious, exhausting ones. I was so incredibly disappointed in the passengers who tried to sneak by without masks or wore them under their noses. I was also angry at American Airlines flight attendants on my first flight who simply hid in their galley, never once even trying to tell passengers to keep their masks on or making an appearance to see if you needed anything. One thing you need to have tucked in your pocket if you consider flying during the COVID-19 pandemic is patience and respect for others.
I haven’t seen or talked to many friends yet, but I know the first question some will in fact ask is, “Would you fly again?”
I stop and ponder what my answer will be. It is not an outright and cocky, “Sure, no problem.” But it’s not a resounding negative. After this experience, if I fly, I would choose my airline carefully, choose my seats as carefully as possible, and I would take just as many if not more precautions.
The choice of flying or not may not truly come down to how you feel about spending a few hours in a metal tube in close contact with 200 or so of your best friends. Your choice of flying during a pandemic honestly comes down to your ethics and respect for others. Are you healthy? Are you taking or are you willing to take precautions before, during, and after your flight? Will you be smart and respectful during travel and at your destination? Is your destination safe? Will you be there long enough to make the flights worthwhile? Are you willing to get tested for COVID-19 prior to your departure and after your return? Are you willing to quarantine if needed? Do you really need to travel right now?
So, yes, I would consider flying again if I needed to – but I will probably choose a different airline. I want to know the airline I select also has respect for me. And if I were asked if it is safe to fly again with American? Well, American Airlines says its purpose is “to care for people on life’s journey.” At this point, I’m not convinced. Are you?