With over 90% of flyers still grounded, what it’s like flying in the U.S. right now

May 8, 2020

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Editors note: This story has been updated with recent statistics, guidance and firsthand information.


Things can change quickly in the sky. Two months ago, there were more Clorox wipes in carry-ons than before, but air travel in the U.S. was otherwise pretty normal. A month ago, boarding gates were deserted, airport food courts and stores were closed, flights were flying basically empty and as few as 83,000 passengers were being screened per day by the TSA, down from a normal of well over 2 million. Words like terrifying, stressful and ghost town were used frequently by those who made the decision to fly.

Now, passenger traffic has doubled from its lowest point in April, but the scene when flying in the U.S. is as different as ever. By May 11, for the first time ever, all of the commercial U.S. airlines will require both passengers and crew to wear face masks.

To maintain as much social distance as is feasible, airlines have changed how they board the plane, where passengers can sit, what service you can expect inflight and even how upgrades are handled and how many seats are sold on flights.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, the busiest travel day with more than 170,000 passengers screened was May 3. That’s still less than 7% of normal traffic.

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While more than 2 million passengers are staying home right now, there are still an increasing number of men, women and children that find themselves needing — or perhaps wanting — to take to the skies each day across the country. With airports and airlines built for 15 times that number of travelers, traveling might be easier than ever in a few respects. But, it’s also still anything but normal. Recent traveler, Kelsey Moszkiewicz, flew from New York’s LaGuardia to Atlanta on May 4 and described the experience to TPG as a, “very strange almost apocalyptic experience.” On an April flight out of the same airport, traveler Caleb Hartzler described his cross-country flying as, “Terrifying and stressful on every level.”

On her recent flight from LaGuardia, Moszkiewicz encountered a passenger that was wearing a plastic poncho, face mask and face shield. Perhaps all totally reasonable flight accessories in our modern world, but a stark reminder of the abrupt departure from the norm.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend against nonessential travel. However, as summer nears and a number of states enter phased reopenings, here’s what to expect if you become one of the travelers who again takes to the sky across the U.S.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

Planes are nearly empty, but getting busier

Hundreds of currently unneeded but otherwise airworthy aircraft are parked nose to tail on runways and open spaces in states such as Alabama and New Mexico.

But for the aircraft that are still flying, the passenger count is usually, though not always, low. On average, just 17 passengers were on U.S. domestic flights for the week that ended April 28, according to the trade group Airlines for America (A4A).

And while there have been stories of planes flying just one passenger, some flights are fuller than passengers may expect, making social distancing a larger challenge. This is true in part because the number of passengers traveling is beginning to rebound from its mid-April low watermark, but also because airlines flying fewer flights and eliminating service to some cities altogether.

On her recent flight from LaGuardia, Moszkiewicz guesstimated that approximately one quarter to one-third of the Delta plane was full. And while that is significantly fewer passengers than was normal a few months ago, it was still more than she expected. Another recent flyer from the New York City-area, Elizabeth Roberts, called United to attempt to find the least full flight to Houston across a variety of days. The Sunday nonstop flight she decided on was ultimately about three-quarters full by the time it rolled around, which made her feel anxious. As the flight filled up, she spent a bit more to upgrade her ticket to first class to ensure more personal space.

(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

Regardless of the total passenger count, at least through May or June, many major U.S. airlines are taking active steps to spread out passengers and limit the capacity of the aircraft. For example, Delta and Alaska have blocked the middle seats and capped passenger capacity within first class. Others, such as American and Spirit have given themselves a bit more flexibility and are blocking middle seats on “most flights.” Southwest famously has an open seating policy, but is reducing the maximum number of seats sold on flights, at least through June, to ensure that no one has to sit in the middle seat.

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

Getting on — and off — the plane may be different from you were used to, as well.

For example, in April, Delta began to board the plane by row, starting with the rear of the aircraft (though those in Delta One, first class or Diamond status holders can still board at any point in the boarding process). Many other airlines have followed suit with a back-to-front boarding process that does its best to maintain social distance, though the application may still be a work in progress.

On her recent United flight to Texas, Roberts received notification from the airline that the plane would board back to front, but in the end, the boarding process was the same zoned procedure that was the pre-COVID19 norm.

Related: Guide to airline social distancing measures

A result of emptier planes and very minimal business travel is that those with elite status may find themselves sitting upfront with cleared upgrades. However, how upgrades are being processed isn’t business as usual. For example, many airlines, such as Delta and United aren’t automatically processing upgrades and instead are clearing them at the gate to maintain passenger spacing. In fact, you may find that half of first class is blocked to space out travelers.

In the TPG Facebook Lounge, those who have found themselves needing to travel in recent weeks paint a consistent picture of airports that are all but deserted. One traveler recently returning to Los Angeles (LAX) from Paris (CDG) said that he passed through security and immigration completely alone — at two of the busiest airports in the world.

Empty check-in area on April 6 (Photo courtesy of Michael Landess)
Empty check-in area on April 6. (Photo courtesy of Michael Landess)

Recent travelers described the situation to TPG as “spooky,” “scarily empty,” “strange” and indeed “a ghost town.” TPG’s Benji Stawski recently had to fly cross-country to collect his belongings and move out of his college apartment in Boston. A regular flyer, he described the scene at LAX, normally one of the busiest airports in the country, as “eerie and empty.” Traveler Elizabeth Roberts described the scene at Newark (EWR) on May 3 as “very creepy.”

Related: Coronavirus-related waivers and schedule changes in place at U.S. airlines

Masks required

Until March, it was rare to see passengers on domestic flights wearing face masks. When I last flew on March 10, face masks had started to appear on airplanes, but I estimated fewer than 5% of travelers were actively wearing masks even though we were just hours away from the country rapidly shutting down.

In April, the CDC’s recommendations surrounding face masks began to shift and travelers saw an increasing number of masks in the sky. Now, in May, masks are rapidly becoming a required in-flight amenity.

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

As a result, the passengers you encounter at the airport and on your flight are more likely to be masked than ever before. On her recent flight from Newark to Houston (IAH), Roberts said that the crew all had masks and gloves and every passenger on the plane and in the airport that she saw was wearing a mask of some sort even though the requirements had not yet fully kicked in.

Many airlines will provide a mask, if needed, as the airline-specific mask requirements take effect. However, not all airlines are taking this approach, so be prepared with your own mask from home.

Related: Will wearing a face mask on a plane keep you safe

(Photo courtesy of Caleb Hartzler)
(Photo courtesy of Caleb Hartzler)

Inflight service cuts are significant

Don’t board a flight hungry right now — or hoping for the normal multicourse meals or even traditional snack baskets. Right now, flying is about function, not form. To minimize interactions and risk, food and beverages are very limited on most flights around the country — even in first class.

Airlines have moved to utilizing as little onboard food and beverages as is possible. Southwest has temporarily suspended all onboard beverages and snacks since late-March. On domestic flights, Delta has eliminated all beverages except 8.5-ounce individual bottles of water.

Since late-March, United has relied primarily on prepackaged foods and sealed beverages on its flights. Preorder meals and food for purchase are no longer available on most flights.

American Airlines has also eliminated food in economy for all but long-haul international trips, while water, juice or canned drinks are only available on request. For first class, snacks and meals were also eliminated on these shorter flights with drinks only available on request.

Related: How airlines are adjusting inflight service due to coronavirus

Regular airport amenities are closed

Due to the onboard service reductions, airlines are encouraging passengers to pack their own snacks and provisions if they must fly. That sounds simple, but keep in mind that many normal airport concessions and lounges are also largely closed.

On Roberts’ recent early May flight out of Newark, the only open concessions she noticed were Starbucks and a small self-service store where you complete your own checkout. The restaurants were all closed and the entrances barricaded either with chairs or plastic wrap. The scene was similar for Moszkiewicz’s flight out of LaGuardia when most shops were dark and closed, with only two options in the normally busy food court. 

If you are used to a lounge visit before your flight, know that all American Express Centurion Lounges are closed, as are American Airlines Flagship First lounges, United Polaris Lounges, a majority of Delta Sky Clubs and more. In the lounges that remain open, expect offerings to be reduced and consist of packaged snacks and single-serve beverages, a further reminder that flying right now is far from normal.

Related: US airlines reduce services and amenities

It’s harder to get from point A to point B

One of the big reasons for April’s “ghost flights” with almost no one on board was the fact that airlines were reducing the number of routes and frequencies that they operated. For example, if you want to fly from Los Angeles to Boston, as TPG’s Stawski recently did, you’re going to have a much harder time finding a nonstop flight.

In fact, there is now only one daily nonstop flight on that normally popular route across all airlines operated by JetBlue. That pattern of fewer ways to get where you need to be repeats itself across the country. The process of getting from Point A to Point B may be much harder and time-consuming than before as airline’s route networks resemble more closely what they were decades ago than just a month or two ago.

For example, in a pre-coronavirus world, the New York City area was teaming with daily flights to points all over the world. Now, United has reduced its New York City-area operations (including at its Newark hub) to just 15 total flights to nine destinations. It’s not just United that has all-but-retreated from the hard-hit NYC area.

Spirit Airlines suspended service to the NYC area altogether on March 30 before resuming a limited schedule in early May. JetBlue has reduced service by 80% and American Airlines is operating just 13 daily round-trip flights across all three major NYC airports. There are 16 airports normally served by JetBlue and Spirit that, at least temporarily, won’t be. While many routes will return as demand increases, it’s very possible the route maps will be forever changed.

It’s not just the number of flights that have dramatically and swiftly reduced by a significant amount, airport operations have also been consolidated, so the terminal you are used to using may not be the one currently in operation. This can also impact the availability of PreCheck and Clear at airports where those aren’t options at all terminals.

Related: Airlines that have suspended operations in light of coronavirus

Some security rules have changed

The TSA has made some accommodations to our current reality and now allows passengers to bring liquid hand sanitizer in up to 12-ounce quantities in carry-on bags until further notice, up from the normal 3.4-ounce limit on liquids. When it comes to face masks, TSA allows travelers to wear face masks while waiting in line to see a TSA agent, but the mask must be temporarily lowered when seeing an agent and having your documents checked.

TSA is also permitting the use of driver’s licenses that expired after March 1, 2020, as acceptable identification at security checkpoints. “TSA will accept expired driver’s licenses a year after the expiration date, plus 60 days after the duration of the COVID-19 national emergency,” the agency stated in late March. Real ID compliance has also been pushed back from its original date in October 2020.

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

Touch as little as possible

Travelers who are still flying can reduce what they touch at the airport by printing their boarding pass at home and having it at the ready. This might even be a better solution than putting your phone on any shared scanning devices or passing it over to an airline employee to scan.

Clear can also be used to minimize the handling of your ID when passing through security by relying solely on your iris scan. To aid with social distancing, Clear is also only utilizing every other kiosk and is generally great about having antibacterial hand solution available next to the machines.

Related: 10 ways coronavirus could forever change the way we travel

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

On his April cross-country journey, Hatzler told TPG that every motion he made was done in a deliberate attempt to touch as little as possible in the airports. From not being sure where to place his bags to keep them safest on the car rental transfer bus, to debating the pros and cons of going through regular TSA screening or carrying the used piece of paper handed to him by security that designated him as a PreCheck member, to standing instead of sitting at the gate area. Every motion was a hyper-aware moment.

Wipe it all down

Until a couple of months ago, if you boarded a flight in the U.S., busted out your Lysol disinfecting wipes and went to town scrubbing the whole thing down, you may have been the exception, not the norm. A few years ago, supermodel Naomi Campbell went viral thanks to her onboard cleaning steps to avoid catching a virus.

But now, passengers wiping down their seats is the norm, as is a deep cleaning by the airlines. Southwest Airlines states that each aircraft receives a six-hour deep cleaning each night. Delta is beginning to fog its aircraft between each flight. When returning a Hertz rental, Hatzler told TPG that staff members in full suits and goggles were cleaning the vehicles and marking them as “COVID-19” with the return date written on the windows.

It is still very hard to purchase disinfecting wipes at stores or online, but some airlines are beginning to provide them to passengers. For example, Allegiant Air’s website states that it provides a complimentary health and safety kit upon boarding that includes a single-use face mask, disposable gloves (non-latex) and two sanitizing wipes.

Related: How to thoroughly disinfect your airplane seat

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

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Be prepared to quarantine

Some U.S. states are operating as (literal) islands when it comes to those arriving. For example, Hawaii has a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine order in place to all arrivals at least through May 31. Those flying into Hawaii will fill out their information and travel plans online and then have their temperature taken upon landing, contact information and reservations verified, and sign a document acknowledging that breaking the strict 14-day quarantine is a criminal offense.

In other locations, the process can be more varied. For example, on Roberts’ flight into Texas she had been notified by United that due to origination in New Jersey, she would face a 14-day self-quarantine upon arrival to Texas. While self-quarantine documents were provided to passengers in-flight, there was no official collecting those documents upon arrival to Houston, so passengers simply dispersed. However, the self-quarantine order in Texas remains in effect for those coming from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington state, California, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Miami.

Your flight may feel normal at times, but the experience is anything but

From the (lack of) traffic when you are dropped off at the airport, to the closed shops, dark and roped off corners, relatively empty departure boards and masked passengers and staff, the process of flying right now does not look or feel normal according to those TPG spoke with. When describing her journey out of Newark, Roberts said the speedy departure from the normally very busy NYC-area air space was noticeable. They weren’t No. 15 sitting for departure on the runway, they left the gate and simply departed — which by itself feels unusual to seasoned travelers.

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

While we have heard that the actual time spent in the air may feel like the most normal feeling part of the travelers’ day (outside of the presence of masks and limited service), make no mistake, flying in the United States right now is far from a normal experience for the passengers and crew.

Additional resources regarding travel and the coronavirus outbreak:

Featured image by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy

 

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