During the month of March, as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the United States and citizens were told to shelter in place and practice social distancing as part of what is now a global effort to flatten the curve, the number of air travelers plummeted.
This past Monday, March 30, some 154,000 travelers passed through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints throughout the United States. On the same day one year prior, 2.36 million people had passed through TSA checkpoints across the country. That’s a 93 percent drop in air travelers that took place over a period of about one month. (In early March 2020 there were still upwards of 2 million people traveling through TSA checkpoints each day—by midmonth, the numbers started declining rapidly.)
But there are still tens of thousands of travelers who need to get in the air for a variety of reasons—whether they’re trying to get back home to family, need to travel for work, or for other personal or professional reasons. Several people who have flown in the past few days filled us in on what air travel is like in the midst of a pandemic.
Airports have turned into ghost towns
Trent Augustus is a senior project manager for an engineering and consulting company and flew from Salt Lake City to Reno and back this past week for work.
The experience was “absolutely surreal,” he said. “It was like walking through a deserted ghost town.” When Augustus arrived at the Reno airport for his return flight back to Salt Lake City, “There was only one other person sitting at the end of the gate. Two people in an entire concourse is eerie, to say the least.”
He saw a few TSA workers wearing face masks, and those working with bags applied hand sanitizer each time they touched a bag.
His advice if you have to fly for some reason? “Keep in mind that everyone is running at a pretty high stress level. Flight attendants, gate agents, pilots, customer service [agents], [they] don’t want to be there any more than anyone else. Give yourself time—you don’t know what you’ll run into. And most importantly, be patient. We’re all in this together and the only way we’ll get through this is together.”
He also noted that travelers should be smart and prepared by using hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes, and by social distancing as much as possible. “It’s not just about you catching something,” said Augustus. “It’s about you catching something and unknowingly transmitting it to someone that may not react well to it.”
Fewer people on flights than at the grocery store
Suzanne Brewster, a 27-year-old gearing up to start business school in the fall, decided to fly from San Francisco back home to her family in Boston this past week given that her living situation is currently in flux anyway.
“My biggest concern was not being able to get out,” said Brewster, whose sister is AFAR’s guides editor Natalie Beauregard. Brewster was worried that frequently changing flight restrictions and availability would mean she couldn’t fly out at all. “Luckily, that didn’t end up being the case.”
Brewster said she gave herself ample time at San Francisco International Airport, but in hindsight that wasn’t necessary; she breezed through check-in and security in about five minutes total.
“It was pretty eerie to see everything boarded up,” she added. Not a single shop was open save for a café where she was able to grab a coffee.
There were about 15 people total on her flight, and boarding was quick. There was no snack service during the entire flight (they made an announcement that granola bars were available upon request—so BYO snacks and meals are a must), and the flight attendants only made one trip down the aisle to hand out water. The majority of passengers and other people she saw throughout the airport had masks on, but the flight attendants, TSA agents, and other airport staff weren’t wearing any.
“The plane was creepy quiet since no one was moving about,” said Brewster. “Once I landed in Boston, we quickly got off the flight and were handed flyers on our way to the baggage claim that stated that all travelers coming into Massachusetts are urged to self-quarantine for 14 days.”
Brewster said that despite her experience, she would still advise most people to avoid flying at the moment, especially if they’re coming from a high-risk area like San Francisco or New York City. Ironically, “I almost felt safer on the airplane than I felt at the grocery store in San Francisco, given how empty everything was and how little interaction I had with anyone.”
Traveling smart means self-quarantining when necessary
This past week, AFAR’s deputy editor Jennifer Flowers decided to fly in the opposite direction, from New York to Seattle, but for a similar reason as Brewster—to be with family.
“I wanted to be nearby just in case I can’t get to them if they need me. My parents are in their 70s and have a lot of pre-existing health conditions, and they’ve been doing all their grocery shopping and medicine pickups by themselves, so I want to be there to help. What feels even more important to me, though, is just being together in order to feel saner and less alone,” said Flowers.
Flowers’s biggest concern was the possibility of contracting COVID-19 and bringing it to her parents’ house, or to her brother, his wife, and their son, who also live in Seattle.
“I didn’t want to become part of the problem by moving around the world at a time when I could spread this thing to other people,” she said. Her solution was to quarantine herself for 14 days at a Residence Inn by Marriott in Seattle before relocating to her parents’ house.
Flowers bought a one-way Delta flight to Seattle (if you’re wondering, it was priced at $190, but she used 15,500 miles to buy it). At the airport, she got through security in no time, and she said that everyone “seemed nicer in general.”
At the gate, she estimated that a quarter of the passengers were wearing masks. Boarding was quick and the plane was pretty sparse. “It felt easy to maintain the six-foot distance rule on the plane,” said Flowers.
During the routine announcements before take-off, the flight attendants mentioned that they circulate clean air on the planes, reminded passengers to wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, to avoid touching their faces, and to sneeze into their arms. There was no food service on the flight, save for snacks that flight attendants handed out with gloves. Only one flight attendant was wearing a mask during the snack service.
“Don’t travel if you don’t have to,” advised Flowers. “If you do have to travel, take necessary precautions so that you don’t put yourself or others at risk. That means constant attention to what you’re touching, disinfecting every surface, and a strict 14-day quarantine when you arrive, especially if you’re coming from a hot zone like New York City. You don’t want to get sick, and you don’t want to become part of the problem.”
Concerns about “getting stuck”
Interestingly, one common thread with people who have flown in recent days and weeks—both domestically and internationally—is the concern about being able to get to where they actually need or want to go or about getting back in light of potential new travel restrictions and bans. This fear often seems to actually usurp the concern about contracting or transmitting the novel coronavirus.
That was definitely the case for Lisa DeSimone, a retired well-traveled globe-trotter who was midway through a two-month trip to Antarctica and South America in mid-March, when news of COVID-19 really started ramping up outside of China and Italy.
Once travel restrictions started to be put in place and airlines began cutting flights, she began to wrestle with the idea of coming home early.
“I wasn’t worried necessarily about contracting the virus—I was more concerned about being stuck in a country where I didn’t speak the language and where I didn’t feel at home,” said DeSimone. “I have visited over 75 countries and travel by myself very often and have never had so little control over what has happened. I felt untethered.” The intrepid traveler said she has never felt anxiety while traveling until the situation she faced at the end of this past trip.
After two long days of rescheduled travel, DeSimone made it from Sucre, Bolivia, to her home airport of Philadelphia, but not without experiences such as confronting an overpacked airport in Lima with “absolutely zero distance between people” on the day that all flights into and out of the country were scheduled to be suspended at midnight.
Among her key learnings and advice from her trip, especially for those who have had to travel internationally during this crisis (or who plan to travel abroad in the future—even well after this pandemic) is to register with the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Doing so will ensure that you receive emails and updates from various consulates of the countries you are visiting about travel restrictions and available flights for stranded passengers, among other information. “If you are an American traveling overseas, this is really the only reliable source of information in a crisis,” said DeSimone.
She also highly recommends getting international cellular and data service. “If I didn’t have cellular service, I would not have known that American Airlines canceled my flight, and I very well may have not been able to get on that last flight out of Peru,” said DeSimone. She noted that having cell service had been “a godsend.”
Ultimately, said DeSimone, “My decision to leave early was a tough one, [but] something in my gut said I should leave. Things were changing rapidly and everything was so uncertain. Had I hesitated one more day, my story would have ended very differently.”
Despite the outcome this time, she is undeterred to get back out and travel again when all is said and done.
Said DeSimone, “I definitely plan to return and visit all the places that I had on my itinerary but didn’t get to. I always have my Antarctica memories to fondly look back on for this trip.”