After a week on the road, why I’m putting a halt on travel
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Last week I took on an assignment to hit the road to gauge how the coronavirus has impacted travel. At the time, the coronavirus threat was still relatively vague, and airlines had just begun to offer waiver policies. I had no hesitations designing and booking an itinerary that had me criss-crossing the western half of the United States on eight different airlines via nine different airports between Friday and Monday.
After the latest round of news Wednesday night, I have decided to put away my suitcase for now. Here’s why.
I passed through three airports and boarded two flights on each day of my trip, leaving myself several hours of buffer time on each layover to step out of the secure area and repeat the ticketing and security process for each new flight in order to gauge how different airports were handling the coronavirus threat.
Since my trip took place on such short notice, I decided to pack very lightly, carrying everything I needed for four days in a single backpack. This allowed me the mobility to fly in basic economy seats when necessary, and also get in and out of security as efficiently as possible.
By the numbers
Miles flown: 4,983
Hours spent “on the road”: 74
Airlines flown: Eight (American, Alaska, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United)
Airports visited: Nine (Austin, Denver, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego and Seattle)
Hotels visited: Three (Renaissance Los Angeles Airport Hotel, Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel and Found Hotel San Diego)
Unavoidable public surfaces encountered: at least 17, primarily airport kiosks and Clear expedited security booths
Face masks spotted: Fewer than 40
For the most part, I found every airport to be more relaxed than I would have expected. I saw very few face masks anywhere, somewhat to my surprise given the mass shortages reported around the world.
I’m not usually a germophobe, but I found myself extremely aware of all of the spots we all touch repeatedly when traveling: The airport check-in kiosks, Clear expedited screening checkpoints, the headrests on aisle seats and the in-flight entertainment touch screens on Delta’s Boeing 737s.
Cleanliness and preventative measures varied greatly from airport to airport. As a general rule, smaller airports consistently had hand sanitizer available, especially near check-in kiosks and Clear checkpoints, while high-traffic areas in major airports like LAX featured a number of dispensers that had been out of hand sanitizer for quite some time.
While the domestic terminals at LAX were operating very much by a “business as usual” policy, the international Tom Bradley terminal stood out in stark contrast. The eerily empty carrels were so devoid of customers that the usual dividing ropes had been disconnected from each other.
The sparse benches lining the terminal walls supported bored travelers who were waiting to check in, almost all of whom wore preventative surgical masks. The scene more resembled the set of a post-apocalyptic movie than an airport terminal, let alone that of one of the world’s busiest international gateways.
Las Vegas was another airport experiencing starkly different traffic patterns from usual. Terminal 3 tends to be quieter on average to begin with, airport employees told me, but the quiet echoes of my own footsteps made me feel like an extra in an early episode of the Walking Dead.
Terminal 1 had more travelers, but still nowhere near the usual crowds hustling and bustling through the baggage claim carousels. My shuttle driver told me that weekday volumes were even lower, as companies and conferences alike cancel events requiring travel. “We’re going to be hurting a lot more very soon,” she sighed.
Out of the nine airports I passed through, Long Beach (LGB) was easily my favorite for this trip. This small airport only serves 16 nonstop destinations, offering travelers a refreshing oasis of open courtyards and fresh air in sharp contrast to the recycled air in enclosed spaces that I breathed throughout the rest of the weekend.
An agent cheerfully printed out a boarding pass for me so I wouldn’t have to use the kiosk. Within seconds, I walked out of the small ticketing building right back into fresh air, passing through a covered, open-air courtyard toward security.
I lingered for a minute or two in the open courtyard, enjoying the clean, crisp breeze and admiring the scenery around me. One installation in particular caught my eye: White, organic planters suspended from some trees made me think of surgical or construction masks, floating in the air. I couldn’t help but wonder who had approved that particular piece of art, and whether or not they now regretted it.
The tiny Long Beach airport was my favorite of the trip, hands down. Everyone seemed comfortable and relaxed, and the environment felt as relaxed as the air was fresh. There wasn’t a face mask to be seen anywhere, there was plenty of space for everyone to spread out, and nobody seemed to have a care in the world.
I grew up in Taiwan during the 2003 SARS outbreak. Every Sunday, my family and I sat alongside more than 200 other members of our church congregation, everyone’s faces obscured behind suffocatingly stuffy surgical face masks.
Despite the heightened tension, the disease moved on a couple of months later, and so did we. “Surviving” SARS felt akin to weathering Y2K for me, and for better or worse, I’ve felt relatively invincible ever since.
I work for The Points Guy, the majority of my family visits involve a plane, and most of my friends are scattered all over the world. I’ve averaged more than 90 flights per year over the past two years, with a combined total of 375,000 miles flown from 2018-2019 alone.
Suffice it to say that travel is an integral part of my soul, and before Wednesday night’s White House announcement, I had no intentions of changing any of my upcoming travel plans.
I originally planned to conclude this article by saying,
“During this season of heightened risk, each of us is responsible for minimizing our exposure to the virus — not just for our own sakes, but for the people around us who don’t have as much immunity as we do. That being said, life carries on. If our personal circumstances permit, and we are being vigilant about our hygienic habits, let’s continue to show up for the moments that make our lives meaningful. When it comes to COVID-19, this, too, shall pass. The impact of how we care for ourselves and others, on the other hand, will last much longer.”
But the world shifted significantly Wednesday night. In less than an hour, millions of travelers learned that they can no longer enter the U.S. beginning Friday. Tom Hanks shared that he and his wife had tested positive for coronavirus while in Australia. And the National Basketball Association (NBA) suspended the rest of the 2020 basketball season after a Utah Jazz player was diagnosed with coronavirus immediately before a game.
These incidences gave me pause — not for myself, but because of the timing of everything that happened within 45 minutes flat. They gave me pause for others who don’t have the advantages I do, which don’t just include my health and immunity. They include my travel knowledge and community resources, my elite status, my expedited screening and my ability to get myself home in an emergency without spending thousands of dollars on a last-minute flight.
Why I won’t be traveling in the near future
As of today, I’m halting my non-essential air travel in order to free up airline resources for travelers who do have somewhere important to be. After Wednesday night’s announcement, hundreds, if not thousands, of travelers will need to book last-minute trips from the Schengen Area back to the U.S. in order to avoid being stranded away from family and home.
Many of those travelers may not know how to use points and miles toward last-minute award travel, or will have to speak directly with an agent in order to adjust existing travel plans. In both scenarios, they will likely need to connect with their airline’s reservations, customer service or loyalty team.
In recent weeks, airlines have already been inundated with customer requests for refunds, itinerary changes and cancellations, and basic information in the wake of lockdowns in China and Italy; cruise ship quarantines; heightened travel requirements and restrictions; canceled conferences and hundreds of other coronavirus-related disruptions.
Wednesday’s tsunami wave of additional headlines may very well overwhelm the entire system.
The Splette curve above illustrates the importance of a community working together to protect the systems that keep our society functioning. While the graphic represents our health system’s capacities, the same concept applies to our social facilities, such as our customer service representatives in the travel industry.
There isn’t much I can do to help at this time. I can’t become a doctor or a nurse overnight; I can’t even stop by and staff a customer service hotline for Southwest or Delta. But I can stay on the ground for a few weeks to help airlines prioritize travelers who need to get home within the next 24 hours. I can put my adventures on hold for a little bit to minimize the chances that I’ll need medical care, whether it’s because I have the coronavirus or because I break an arm and take up space in the emergency room.
My original conclusion — that traveling is still a good idea with the proper precautions in place — may no longer apply. But the final line of my conclusion still does: The impact of the grace we show each other during this time will last far longer than COVID-19 ever could.
Featured image and all photos by Katherine Fan for The Points Guy.
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