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5 things I noticed about how flying has changed since the pandemic

Aug. 18, 2020
11 min read
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As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year.

For a pandemic year that upended travel as we knew it, I was able to rack up a considerable amount of miles.

I started the year watching fireworks in front of the Thames River in London. I greeted the start of the pandemic and shutdowns during a vacation at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Now I'm reflecting on what has happened in the past few months in Korea.

I flew to all these spots, and throughout these journeys, I was able to make some observations on how flying has transformed during the crisis. Will these changes stay the same even after an eventual vaccine restores the travel industry to pre-COVID days? Who knows, but here are several things that you can expect if you decide to book a ticket anytime soon.

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1) Flight attendants have gotten friendlier and more personable.

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Ok, so all of my post-pandemic flights have been with Delta, so this may be skewed given my trips earlier in the year had all been in January on a combination of Ryanair, Aegean, KLM and Delta.

But the point is this: With so much uncertainty in the industry, I think it's fair to say that flight attendants could be expected show some uneasiness while doing their day-to-day jobs during a pandemic. We're all human, and I think that's just natural. So, if anything, I expected the quality of in-flight service to decrease after airlines began making their myriad changes in response to the pandemic. Whether from new service routines or flagging morale, the pandemic can't be easy on airline crews.

But that wasn't the case on my transcontinental flight from Boston (BOS) to Phoenix (PHX) (connecting at Detroit) in late March. Nor was it the case on my latest journey in mid-July from Phoenix to Seoul (ICN) (connecting at Seattle). It has been my experience that post-pandemic in-flight food on international flights has worsened, but I was quite satisfied with everything else. It's remarkable — at least from my personal experience — that the attention that I've gotten from flight attendants from the onset of this pandemic back in mid-March to the end of July has been very consistent.

I do think it helps that there are fewer passengers. Perhaps that allows flight attendants to be more attentive to individual customers, and maybe that's what I've noticed. But I can't ignore the crew is delivering this service amid concerns about face masks and flyers' PPE, the government's negotiations over the CARES Act and other financial uncertainties. Flight attendants are putting themselves out there at risk amidst the rising cases of COVID-19, and — in my mind — it has made their service feel even more special.

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Related: 6 things America’s top flight attendant thinks about the future of travel

2) Connecting at hub airports may become more cumbersome.

A map showing American's plan to focus growth at its hubs in Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth and Washington from late 2018. (Image courtesy of American Airlines)

Other than Southwest, most of the big U.S.-based airlines run on a hub-and-spoke model which require most itineraries to make a connection. While my base in Phoenix is actually a hub for American, I've been consciously choosing to take Delta in recent years.

In the pre-pandemic world, when aviation figures were at all-time highs across the board, making a connection usually wasn't too onerous as airlines geared their schedules to minimize connection times at their hubs to facilitate connections. The crowds could be tough, but the connection times were generally pretty favorable as long as your flights were on time.

That system works when there are enough flyers to connect. In the pandemic age, however, schedules can unravel when passenger traffic drops as much as it has.

While there are still some normal connection times in the schedule, longer connections appear to be inevitable as airlines cut back schedules to adjust to reduced demand.

And if you do face one of those longer-than-usual connections, you might face a dearth of amenities while waiting for your next flight. That's because a number of airport restaurants and businesses have closed with passenger levels down. Lounges have reduced service or closed altogether, meaning there's just not much you can do in the airport right now. Unless, that is, you're okay watching Netflix videos or trying to finish work while waiting. The increased time you spend at your connecting airport without much being offered may be a bit annoying.

Related: Delta still plans 'gateway' hub at Miami with partner LATAM

3) You'll face less annoying travelers on your journey.

I can say I've had my fair share of experiences seeing questionable passenger etiquette while traveling.

But flying during the pandemic, you may find your fellow passengers to be more compliant and orderly.

For example, there won't be the need to sit next to someone with a fat backpack taking up your space if you're flying on airlines that are taking initiatives to block middle seats. And since passengers are required to wear masks, there is a lot less likelihood of chatty seatmates who are determined to talk and keep you from your nap.

Of course, you could end up on one of those flights where a passenger gets banned for refusing to wear a mask in flight. But, hopefully your planemates might be a little more zen about the whole experience given all the other sacrifices being made to travel during a pandemic.

More: 10 ways to not be an annoying passenger

4) Cleaner lavatories ... and maybe shorter lines?

You've likely heard it on many of your flights. The pilot takes to the intercom, reminding passengers to not crowd around the lavatories. Now, with a pandemic, the announcements also add emphasis on the necessity of social distancing. Even without this reminder, it seemed to me that lavatories would still remain less busy because passengers want to minimize unnecessary contact in the air. There's also dramatically fewer passengers on most flights.

Still, when you've got to go, you've got to go — even if that's at 35,000 feet. Fortunately, airlines have taken great strides during the pandemic to improve their cleaning protocols to make sure that every part of their aircraft is safe — including lavatories.

Even with disappointing news that certain carriers seem to have scaled back in-flight cleaning, lavatories are still being prioritized for disinfection. During my recent journey from Phoenix to Seoul, I felt safe in using the airport restrooms and airplane lavatories. Still, I did notice passengers seemed to be waiting to dash for the restroom when the plane would land.

And, if it makes you feel better, bring extra disinfecting wipes to clean down any surfaces you might touch, even in the lavatory. No one would give you a second look for doing so right now. On most airlines, you can only count on a single complimentary wipe after you board. Maybe there'll be spares, but what if there aren't? You'll likely want to use the one you do get to wipe your seat, tray tables and surroundings. TPG's Summer Hull notes that TSA permitted her family to clear security with a full-size bottle of disinfecting wipes, so that may be an option to consider.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Having trouble finding where to buy these wipes? They might be available in the same airport vending machines selling masks. Sam’s Club, Walgreens, Costco and Amazon usually have quantities available to sell. Grocery delivery companies like Instacart can also be helpful in trying to purchase these wipes.

Related: Best credit cards for grocery orders during the pandemic

5) Personal space even in economy class?

Delta in-cabin experience from Phoenix to Seattle. Photo by Brian Kim / The Points Guy

Yes, and it helps greatly if the airline takes proactive measures to block middle seats. You may not see this on carriers like United and American, which will sell seats to capacity if the demand is there. But across all airlines, many flights are simply flying with very few passengers. That means you might benefit from an abundance of of seats where you can have your pick — something that was practically unheard of prior to the pandemic.

It isn't a financially sound policy for airlines to purposefully block middle seats, but there is a reason for doing so. These decisions are meant to make customers more comfortable about flying — and perhaps increasing customer loyalty in the process.

Get it in while you can, though, because it may not last. American indicated that not having flight caps helped with passenger revenue, perhaps tempting others to do the same.

But whether it's this year or next, airlines will almost certainly end the blocked-middle seat policy and began selling flights to capacity if demand is there. Similarly, demand eventually will rebound to the point where planes may not be sold out, but they'll be relatively full. The question is when?

More: Which carriers are blocking middle seats right now?

Bottom line

International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade group representing airlines globally, does not expect the number of flyers to return to 2019 levels until at least 2024.

If this holds true, then the changes I mentioned may stick around until the industry is able to heal from the crisis. Of course, expect airlines to continue to put an emphasis on cleaning, something that helped Delta tale the top spot in TPG's recent annual ranking of airlines.

And, let's call out the obvious. While some of these changes — like blocked middle seats — look good at first glance, they also come as carriers face an existential threat from the pandemic. For the aviation industry to recover, the airlines will even need help from passengers. Customers will need to step up to change their habits if flying is to be as safe as possible during the spread of COVID-19.

How? Wear a mask in the public correctly. Not putting it just over your mouth, but by wearing it correctly and making sure your nose and your mouth are properly covered — just as the CDC recommens. Wearing face coverings in public settings have been proven to reduce transmissions to significant levels even when social distancing measures are maintained.

Traveling has been taken for granted so long that we seem to have forgotten that it is a privilege, which we are feeling with all the border closures between states and countries. But we can bring things back to normal — as long as we uphold our civic responsibilities of wearing a mask and socially distancing whenever possible.

Related: I quarantined and tested abroad — here’s what it was like

Featured image by (Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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Rewards Rate

5XEarn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year.
5XEarn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.

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  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

Pros

  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
  • This card comes with a long list of benefits, including access to Centurion Lounges, complimentary elite status with Hilton and Marriott, at least $500 in assorted annual statement credits and so much more. (Enrollment required for select benefits.)
  • The Amex Platinum comes with access to a premium concierge service that can help you with everything from booking hard-to-get reservations to finding destination guides to help you plan out your next getaway.

Cons

  • The high annual fee is only worth it if you’re taking full advantage of the card’s benefits. Seldom travelers may not get enough value to warrant the cost.
  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
  • The annual airline fee statement credit can be complicated to take advantage of compared to the broader travel credits offered by competing premium cards.
  • Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • $200 Hotel Credit: Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings with American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 in statement credits each month when you pay for eligible purchases with the Platinum Card® at your choice of one or more of the following providers: Peacock, Audible, SiriusXM, The New York Times, and other participating providers. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. Now there are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Select one qualifying airline and then receive up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year when incidental fees are charged by the airline to your Card.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • $300 Equinox Credit: Get up to $300 back each year on an Equinox+ subscription, or any Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Breeze through security with CLEAR® Plus at 45+ airports nationwide and get up to $189 back per year on your membership (subject to auto-renewal) when you use your Card.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees