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Editors note: This story has been updated with recent statistics, guidance and firsthand information.
The only constant for air travel since March has been constant, dramatic, almost unimagined change.
March started as usual with packed planes, impatient travelers and only mild-to-moderate fears over COVID-19 within the U.S. for most who flew. By early April, boarding gates were deserted, airport stores and food courts were shuttered, flights were flying all-but-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 decided to fly in those early spring months. And while you still hear ghost town used to describe airports as recently as today, the experience isn’t described as terrifying anywhere near as much as it was in April. In part — while things are as weird as ever with face shields, toddlers in face masks, quarantines and mandatory tests in some areas, travelers have started to acclimatize to this change.
Looking back, May is where things started to rebound a bit, but that’s when we started to see required face masks for both passengers and crew. Airlines also began to change how they board the plane, where passengers can sit, inflight service, how upgrades were handled and how many seats are sold on flights.
Now in August, we’ve seen some elements of air travel swing back toward pre-pandemic normal. We’ve also already seen multiple dates with more than 700,000 travelers taking to the sky in the U.S. (in fact, the TSA counted nearly 800,000 passengers just yesterday), which is more than an eightfold increase from the slowest travel days of April. But it’s still only around 30% of the total number of travelers on the same dates in 2019.
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But the settling into the new — or at least current — normal for flying in the U.S. hasn’t been all bad for travelers.
On a recent United flight from Los Angeles (LAX), TPG’s Brian Kelly said that “I feel like it’s much more relaxed versus normal when everyone is on edge and trying to jam on planes.” But, he pointed out his flights weren’t packed full of passengers.
And that may be the key to what it’s like to fly in the U.S. right now. Many parts of the process are still calmer than normal thanks to the still-low numbers of travelers. However, some flights are quite full, and while masks are required by all U.S. airlines, not all passengers are happy about it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that travel increases your risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. However, as summer begins to round its final turn, all states have entered some phase of reopening. Here’s what to expect if you become one of the travelers who again takes to the sky across the U.S.
Until March, it was rare to see passengers on domestic flights wearing face masks in the U.S. When I 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. In May, masks became a largely required in-flight amenity as most domestic airlines introduced a written requirement for passengers to wear masks.
Now, all of your fellow passengers aged 2 and up will likely be wearing a face mask of some sort — or at least they are supposed to be. Several airlines have started to ban passengers who are not following the mask guidelines. It’s also worth noting that the airline-specific mask requirements have started to spread to within airports and while at the gate.
Many airlines will provide a mask for free if needed. However, not all airlines are taking this approach, so be prepared with your own mask from home — here’s where you can purchase face masks. (And here are suggestions for your kids who need a face mask, too.)
Face shields worn over the mask itself are also becoming a carry-on item for some passengers, though they’re not required for U.S. air passengers.
Hundreds of currently unneeded but otherwise airworthy aircraft are still parked nose to tail on runways and open spaces in states such as Alabama and New Mexico, though some have been brought back into service.
For the aircraft that are flying, the passenger count is still on the low side for most flights. After trending upward each week through the July 4 weekend, average passenger count had plateaued the last few weeks with an average of 54 passengers per domestic flight for the week that ended July 28. For reference, that number was just 17 passengers per U.S. domestic flights for the week that ended April 28, according to the trade group Airlines for America (A4A).
This increase from April is both because the number of passengers traveling has rebounded to a point from the mid-April low watermark, but it’s also because airlines are flying fewer flights than at the beginning of the pandemic and have eliminated service to some airports altogether.
On a flight 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.
Some airlines, such as United, are notifying you when a flight fills beyond a certain percentage and will then allow you to change flights.
This is helpful as some airlines have taken to filling the planes with as many passengers as are willing to buy tickets. However, not all have taken that approach. For example, Delta and Alaska have blocked the middle seats and capped passenger capacity within first class. Southwest has also committed to not selling planes to capacity so that middles can stay open at least through October.
In fact, Delta was first major U.S. airline to commit to onboard social distancing at least through the end of the summer as it limits capacity to 60% of economy seats, 50% of first class seats and 75% of Delta One suites through at least Sept. 30.
This is one of the reasons that Delta came out on top of the recent TPG study on which airlines were handling the pandemic the best.
Getting on — and off — the plane may also be different from you were used to, as well.
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.
But, having just flown in July on both United and Spirit, I’ll say that boarding and deplaning were the two times that felt, by far, the riskiest from a social distance perspective. On Spirit, when it came time to get off the plane, the whole plane still got up at once and started to gather their items. On United, the crew did a good job deplaning by blocks of rows, but you’re still going to be closer than you may want to fellow passengers from a few moments during that time.
A result of emptier planes and very minimal business travel is that those with elite status may find themselves sitting upfront with cleared upgrades. Airlines had largely paused processing upgrades before the flight, but have recently returned to clearing upgrades in advance.
And in the case of less than full flights, you may decide to forgo your upgrade for more room in the back.
Don’t board a flight too hungry or thirsty right now.
While in-flight service is returning from the lowest levels in April and May — when it was all but suspended on domestic flights — flying continues to largely be about function, not form. To minimize interactions and risk, food and beverages are still limited most flights around the country — even in first class.
Southwest had temporarily suspended all onboard beverages and snacks, but in late-May it reintroduced cans of water and a snack mix on flights over 250 miles. 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. On Brian Kelly’s recent United flight from Newark (EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX) in business class, there was a prepackaged hot meal served (though he had been told at the gate there would not be), but drink service upfront was limited to beer or wine — and it ran out by the time he asked for a second Miller Lite.
On my United flight from Orlando (MCO) to Houston (IAH) in early-July, an all-in-one water and snack pack were handed out in economy.
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.
While airlines can reduce the number of planes in service, thus causing those that remain to fill, there’s only so much you can do to close portions of the airport. Thus, the impact of less than 30% of regular travelers taking to the skies is still acutely felt while inside the airport.
TPG’s Benji Stawski 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.” TPG’s Richard Kerr flew in early June from Atlanta (ATL) to Orlando (MCO) to cover the reopening of the Universal Orlando theme park and noted that both airports were relatively empty.
The same was true of Orlando when I flew in July to cover Disney World’s reopening.
However, the Spirit gates at Houston (IAH) in July felt … almost normal when flight delays caused more passengers to be in the gate area than was originally intended.
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 there are often still only a couple of concessions open, even in major terminals.
On Brian Kelly’s recent June flight out of Newark, there were very few options for food and even the United Club lounges remained mostly closed.
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 airline-specific lounges and more. While some lounges are starting to reopen, expect offerings to be reduced and consist of packaged snacks and single-serve beverages, a further reminder that the act of flying right now remains pretty far from normal.
Right now, might still take longer to get where you want to be unless you are flying hub to hub. Airline’s route networks resemble more closely what they years ago than just a few months ago.
Airlines drastically pared flights as the pandemic took hold in the U.S., with some carriers cutting up to 90% of their entire schedules at the lowest point.
At one point this spring, Spirit Airlines suspended service to the NYC area altogether, though it eventually resumed a limited schedule in early May. JetBlue had reduced service by 80% and American Airlines was operating just 13 daily round-trip flights across all three major NYC airports earlier this spring. There are 16 airports normally served by JetBlue and Spirit that, at least temporarily, won’t be. The same is true for more than a dozen Delta routes. And if you’re looking to fly from New York City to a reopened Las Vegas, you’d normally have an abundance of nonstop flight options. Right now, though, there’s only one airline with daily nonstop service on that route: JetBlue, with one morning and one evening flight out of JFK.
Some flights have started to return as demand increases, but the route maps may 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.
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. Full-sized containers of Lysol-type wipes are also being allowed.
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 latest implementation date, which had been October 2020.
Travelers who are 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.
In my experience, Clear also had social distancing clues related to where to stand, whereas the regular TSA line did not.
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. In fact, many airlines are providing wipes and disinfectant to passengers when they board.
Southwest Airlines states that each aircraft receives a six-hour deep cleaning each night. Delta is fogging its aircraft between each flight.
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 August. 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. The state has announced plans to allow for advance testing to take the place of quarantine, but that has not yet taken effect.
Alaska now requires a negative COVID-19 test to enter the state if you want to avoid a 14-day quarantine.
In other locations, the process can be more varied. Florida still has restrictions and mandatory 14-day quarantines for those entering only from certain states, such as New York, New Jersey and surrounding areas. Maine had required a 14-day quarantine for all incoming visitors, but now has exemptions for those from a few states with lower case counts or those who have a test done within 72 hours of coming to the state. You may have some forms to fill out on your flight or when you arrive at or from a specific airport.
Related: State by state guide to reopening
As more states institute tiered rules for who can enter without quarantine, getting a coronavirus test close to your travel date is still a challenge in many places.
From the (lack of) traffic when you are dropped off or park 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.
When describing a recent 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.
That said, many travelers agree that the actual time spent in the air may feel like the most normal feeling part of the travelers’ day, when you can peer out the window beyond your required mask and optional face shield.
But while there was a bit of a rebound for air travel in late June and into July, the fall may bring with it emptier airports once again. And make no mistake, even if your cocktail in first class has returned, flying in the United States right now is still far from a normal experience for the passengers and crew.
Additional resources regarding travel and the coronavirus outbreak:
Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy
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