Brave new world; 8 changes I’ve noticed flying during coronavirus

Sep 13, 2020

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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.
When the coronavirus outbreak first happened, I headed for my father’s ranch in Montana and didn’t leave for the next four months. When I finally started venturing out again in July, I stuck to road trips at first. I’ve been extraordinarily cautious – wearing a mask constantly, religiously washing my hands and using hand sanitizer, and even wearing eye coverings. As I’ve slowly returned to the skies, it’s been fascinating to see the changes on the ground at airports and in the air.
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I’ve flown both Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines over the past few months, and I really have felt safe and well taken care of by both airlines.
Here’s the eight changes that have been most noticeable as I’ve flown around the U.S.

In This Post

Airports are empty

Milwaukee Airport August 31, 2020 (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Milwaukee Airport August 31, 2020 (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

 

The thing that has probably shocked me the most about my recent travel is seeing how empty most of the airports I’ve traveled through have been.

Related: My first flight post-coronavirus

It’s very strange to see empty terminals and not to see bustling crowds and overflowing gate areas. The most glaring examples were at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport (MKE).

My colleagues have reported on how empty John F Kennedy International Airport (JFK), and LaGuardia Airport (LGA) have been as well.

The two exceptions to this have been Seattle International Airport (SEA) and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS) which have both been relatively crowded (though not like pre-pandemic). Las Vegas was the most crowded of any airport I’ve been to so far in the past few months. In fact, while Las Vegas was definitely less crowded than it has been, the airport felt too crowded at times.

Related: 9 ways Las Vegas is different now

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport August 27, 2020. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

 

Many lounges are closed or have reduced offerings

Scaled back food and beverage options at Alaska Airlines lounge in Seattle. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Scaled back food and beverage options at Alaska Airlines lounge in Seattle. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

 

Many of lounges I’ve passed have been closed including the American Express Centurion lounges and some of the Priority Pass lounges. I also came across closed Delta and United lounges. The few lounges that are open definitely have less amenities and food options. (American Airlines is beginning to serve hot food a few of its open lounges.)

Delta probably has the most robust offerings especially at the Los Angles and Salt Lake City clubs I visited. Still, food is all individually wrapped and drinks are served by a bartender behind plexiglass.

Related: Review of Delta lounge LAX during COVID-19

It was similar at the Alaska Airlines lounge I went to in Seattle. Food and beverage options were sparse and individually wrapped. There was one walk-up bar servicing people who wanted drinks, but you needed to socially distance while waiting to be served. You couldn’t serve yourself coffee even at the Alaska lounge. The lounges were much less full than normal as well.

Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access in 2020

Flights are less crowded

Delta flight from Butte, MT to Salt Lake City International Airport. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Delta flight from Butte, MT to Salt Lake City International Airport. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

 

The thing that has made me feel perhaps best about the air travel I’ve done this summer is the lack of crowding on planes. Most of my flights have been only about 25% full. That’s why I’ve mostly stuck to Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines because so far they are blocking middle seats.

Related: What its like to fly during the pandemic

Everyone is wearing masks

Horizon Air for Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Bozeman, MT. (Photo by Clint Henderson:The Points Guy)

 

I am very happy to report that mask compliance was 100% on all my flights. Pilots and flight attendants make multiple announcements during boarding and during the flight. I didn’t hear anyone complaining. Most people are even wearing their masks properly (like keep your nose covered).

The only times people take their masks off is to eat or drink. Only one time did I see a woman leave her mask off for a long time. She was drinking several glasses of wine.

Related: Face mask etiquette

There is minimal service 

Delta snack bag. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Delta snack bag. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

 

If you are a big fan of first class service and food and beverage service, you’ll be disappointed when you return to the skies. Interactions with flight attendants are few and far between for safety reasons obviously. On most Delta flights you’ll get a large plastic baggy with snacks, water and some hand sanitizer.

Related: Guide to meal and drink service in the age of coronavirus

Alaska Airlines had more of a traditional meal service on longer flights, but the was still limited to pre-packaged snack items or a cheese plate even on long flights. Alaska is serving hot, fresh coffee on their flights which I did not get on Delta. They are also giving out warmed-up cookies in first class which is a nice treat.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

 

No cocktails

(Screenshot courtesy Delta Air Lines)
(Screenshot courtesy Delta Air Lines)

 

One thing to be aware of if you love a cocktail is that there aren’t any! Most airlines are not serving mixed drinks at all at least on domestic fights. Both Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines are serving individual bottles or cans of wine or beer, but generally only in their premium cabins.

Related: Booze on board?

Planes seem more clean 

Alaska Airlines Airbus A320 (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Alaska Airlines Airbus A320 (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

 

This is obviously subjective since you can’t see germs, but I definitely feel like planes are cleaner. I noticed much less trash and dirty surfaces than I’m used to seeing on planes

The airlines have all announced various cleaning measures and planes are being cleaned better and more often. Many airlines are actually sanitizing surface areas with electrostatic sprayers at least once a day or using a fogging spray that disinfects surfaces.

Related: How airlines are working to keep it clean amid coronavirus outbreak

In any case, it made me feel better knowing the new procedures were in place. I also appreciated Delta handing out hand sanitizer to every passenger and putting it inside new meal bags. Alaska also gives out hand sanitizer, but only on request.

Delta handouts. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Delta handouts. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

 

Related: How Delta is cleaning planes

Upgrades are clearing easily

Alaska Airlines first class cabin on a 737. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Alaska Airlines first class cabin on a 737. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

 

One of the extraordinary impacts of the fall in travel demand has been the ease of upgrades for elite members. Even with airlines blocking as many as half of seats in the first class cabin, upgrades have been easy and early. I’ve only missed one upgrade in all the flights I’ve taken on planes with first class cabins. A 95% upgrade percentage would have been unheard of before the pandemic even with top tier status.

As a MVP Gold 75K on Alaska, I’ve gotten upgrades on all my flights. As a Delta Platinum, I’ve only missed one.

Other folks are reporting similar success. My colleague Zach Wichter was recently updgraded as a Delta Silver Medallion.

Conclusion

Alaska Airlines "Next Level Care" brochure (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Alaska Airlines “Next Level Care” brochure (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

 

After multiple airplane rides, I can report that I’ve felt safe in the air and at airports. For the most part, folks are following rules and social distancing guidelines. I’ve chosen Delta and Alaska because I feel like they have taken the most precautions (Southwest getting high marks from my colleagues too).

To stay up to date on how coronavirus is impacting the travel industry, head to TPG’s coronavirus hub page.

Be sure to check out Zach Honig’s guide to various airlines’ policies for cleaning and social distancing if you are going to be returning to the skies so you can make the best decision for yourself.

Featured photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.

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