by Jack Hojnar
NOTE: To read Part 1, Click Here
It seems perhaps near impossible to talk about flying on a plane without mentioning masks and social distancing. And when you mention masks and social distancing it perhaps seems inevitable to discuss the politics of it all. And well, that often leads nowhere fast.
What to do?
I'm going to attempt the impossible. With Part 2 of my blog, which chronicles my experience getting back on a plane after nearly four months out of the familiar mix of travel, I share with you my unbiased experience; at least that was the intent.
Because the purpose of this blog - and the previous one - is quite simple: keep you prepared before, during and after you travel. By providing you with enough information, you can determine if traveling again may be something you're considering. And if you've already been back on the road again, perhaps you'll connect with some of my experiences and findings.
Finally, know that I've only taken one trip since landing in Chicago from a vacation to Las Vegas in the first week of March. My last trip was to Portland, OR, to visit my kids. MDW to PDX. Prior to that trip, I was in the air nearly every week from January to March.
My next trip will be this August, MDW to DEN (if you're a flyer, you know the abbreviations).
Here we go ...
Getting to the Airport
Prior to Covid-19 I was a rideshare junkie. No distance was too far or too near. I'd always sit in the front seat and would learn more about the driver than perhaps I even know about my siblings. Rideshare is - and I hope will be again soon - a wonderful social experience.
That wasn't going to happen on this trip.
Being unsure of the safety risks, I opted out of riding in someone else's car and instead parked at the airport. No real findings here.
At the Airport
My flight was scheduled for 8 am and as a frequent traveler and someone with a Known Traveler ID (READ: TSA Pre-Check) I tend to last-second my airport experience leaving just enough time to get in line to board. The airport was so empty on this particular morning that there was:
- No TSA Pre-Check people in line. I was the only person.
- No restaurant or store or meal place open anywhere except for a Dunkin Donut's kiosk.
- Maybe, and this is a big maybe, 200 people in the entire airport
People wearing masks far outnumbered those not wearing masks, perhaps at 95% - 5%. Social distancing was irrelevant as no one was in the airport in the first place.
I did not inspect nor use the bathroom, in case anyone was wondering.
I flew Southwest and they've implemented a policy leaving the middle seat open. This was the case on my flight, which was full with the middle seats open. All passengers wore masks and, if your travel SWA you know that the flight attendants can entertain with their flight announcements. Mask wearing speeches were both non-offending and hilarious. Sadly, I was laughing so hard I couldn't remember what they said.
And moreover, everyone on the plane essentially kept to themselves. Now this, to be sure, isn't familiar territory for me. I am used to talking with other flyers, and have in fact, have made some solid business contacts doing so. No one even considered talking with other people other than to offer to share hand wipes or sanitizer.
I did have hand wipes that I used to wipe down the seat, the seat tray and the window. So too did nearly everyone else.
And here's a big issue: I was wearing a mask for nearly 7 hours straight. From the time I arrived at the airport to the time my flight landed, my mask was only off my face for bursts to drink water; this was not easy, but I managed. Others may not feel as comfortable.
Bottom line: on a long, 4+ hour flight across the country, I felt at-ease, flyers were considerate and the attendants did their best to respectfully relieve a bit of obvious tension.
When I Landed
I arrived in Portland and the environment was much different than Chicago. Half the customers were in masks. Not much social distancing. Restaurants all open. The bathroom was as crowded as if there was no virus running through the country. It was midday so this may also have contributed to the environment.
Overall, my experience in PDX was much different than that of MDW. PDX is much more lax than MDW. In neither case, though, was there any "mask police." People were still friendly and respectful.
Point? Each destination - obviously - is going to be incredibly unique to any other, so plan accordingly.
Going Back Home
Traveling at 5 pm with a 7 pm flight, I wasn't sure how fast TSA-Pre might be compared to MDW. I was one of three people in TSA-Pre. More time on my hands than needed.
NOTE: I was paying attention to line traffic in non-TSA Pre lines and it was far less crowded than I have ever seen in all my years of travel. But this should be no surprise.
Restaurants open. Food court open (no one wearing masks there at all). Shops and stores open.
Throughout the airport, approximately 30% of travelers were in masks.
On the return flight, the experience was nearly identical to my originating flight. However, the attendants were not nearly as funny and perhaps it's because they were on their fifth up-and-down of the day.
Arriving at MDW
A far different experience landing in Chicago than when I left a few days earlier. Fewer mask wearers (75% with / 25% without) at the terminal. More places to eat were open and the airport was far more crowded with perhaps 2,000 people in my terminal. Overall, though, everyone kept to themselves. It was the quietest I have ever seen an airport since I landed at SFO at 2 am PST last year.
Preparing your travel (per Part 1) is still as critical as ever. Be sure to use a credit card that provides travel protection services (e.g., trip delay, trip cancelation, lost luggage, etc.). You may not have control over whether or not your trip will happen; each local municipality is changing the rules on tourists frequently and suddenly.
I didn’t stay at any hotels as I was staying with my family. However, I am traveling again in late August, will be staying at several different hotels and made sure to book refundable trips while also connecting with my credit card provider to determine what protections exist should Covid-19 force my trip to be canceled.
And finally, I found I was not nervous about traveling at all. Keep in mind, I'm not a nervous traveler anyway, crowds don't bother me and I took personal precautions to make me more comfortable.
Good luck out there.
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