What’s it like to fly during a pandemic? We compared 4 different US airlines
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We can probably agree that no two airlines are exactly equal.
Sure, domestic airlines are similar in many respects but there are crucial differences, even during normal times. You might, for example, trade legroom and the ability to select a seat in advance for a $29 fare on a low-cost carrier. Or splurge for a full-service airline that lets you bring a bag for free and offers more generous recline.
But during a pandemic, the differences between how seriously airlines take health and hygiene likely matters more than whether you got a free soda at 36,000 feet.
Recently, three TPG staffers flew for various reasons on flights operated by four different U.S. carriers. We compared the experiences and found that, while each airline has similar written policies promising to keep passengers safe during the coronavirus crisis, how things work in the real world can vary.
Here’s what it was like to fly in the U.S. right now across Spirit, United, Delta and American.
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The details: Morning flight from Houston (IAH) to Orlando (MCO)
Spirit’s official stated coronavirus precautions
At this time, Spirit is requiring all passengers and staff members to wear “appropriate face coverings,” except for children under 2. Masks can be purchased for $3 if you need one. The airline also says it’s using hospital-grade disinfectants that focus on high-touch areas such as handles, seatbelt buckles, tray tables, and armrests, and added additional cleaning between flights.
Additionally, Spirit says it’s fogging its aircraft with two different treatments (though it doesn’t say how often). Guests are encouraged to self bag-tag and self bag-drop when possible, and the airline states there are “social distancing indicators” at the check-in counters. At the airport, Spirit promises to use EPA-registered disinfectants at the gate and check-in areas and is allowing guests to scan their boarding passes.
What it’s really like to fly Spirit right now
Seat selection: Spirit Airlines does not allow free advance seat selection. Not pre-pandemic, not mid-pandemic, not post-pandemic. Ancillary charges, like seat selections, are a significant part of Spirit’s revenue, so that’s not going to change even while passengers are trying to stay a safe distance from each other.
The seat map appeared to be very wide-open in the days leading up to the flight, but unfortunately, that’s not a great gauge for how empty the flight will be since most passengers on Spirit don’t pay for seat assignments in advance. That’s why we decided to book Big Front Seats in row one to maximize space. Ultimately, it was a winning strategy. The aircraft was ultimately very full. Spirit does not promise to block middle seats, though said it will when possible.
At the gate: At the Houston airport, things started off fine in the gate area as we had our own corner to ourselves. But our flight was delayed over two hours for routine maintenance that went slower than expected (staff says the holdup was due to COVID-19).
This led to the gate area filling up with more flights than intended departing at similar times. We also couldn’t leave the gate area as we were told the maintenance could be completed at any moment.
Boarding: As always, Spirit boarded its plane by zones. While the boarding line was probably more spaced out, it was still a closer squeeze than we were comfortable with, so we hung back and were basically the last two passengers on board even though we were in the first boarding group by virtue of having paid for a carry-on bag and the Big Front Seats.
I did not see many social distancing queues during the boarding process.
As some of the last on board, it wasn’t too hard to stow our bags and clean our seats with Lysol wipes before sitting down without blocking the aisle.
Cleanliness: While I regret not getting a photo of the wipe after it was used, it was a little brown and discolored after scrubbing the seat, seatbelt, window and other high-touch surfaces. While that doesn’t mean the seat was contaminated, or that it wasn’t cleaned between flights, it was noticeable that the wipe picked up some dirt — if nothing else.
In-flight experience: Spirit traditionally doesn’t have any complimentary services during the flight, and that’s still true during a pandemic. They did not hand out sanitizing wipes or packages for guests. The passengers within my view all had on masks of some sort, and the passengers immediately seated around us also mostly wore face shields in addition to masks. The flight attendants had masks with the yellow Spirit plane logo.
Related: Where to buy face masks for travel
Deplaning: This was the worst part. Deplaning, as far as I could tell, was the same as always, which is to say that everyone stands up at once to get their bags and get off the plane. It was without a doubt the least socially distanced 60 seconds of our entire trip — and that includes our time at Disney World. Lucky for us, we were in the first row, so we were off as quickly as possible. I don’t know if the situation changed after, but there was no social distancing happening at the front of the plane when it was time to say goodbye to the flight as fast as we could.
The details: Midday flight from Orlando (MCO) to Houston (IAH)
United’s official stated coronavirus precautions
United Airlines is not one of the airlines guaranteeing blocked middle seats, though it will attempt to notify passengers when the aircraft is booked beyond 70% capacity. It will then allow those customers to change to a different flight. United states that it does “use electrostatic spraying on all aircraft before departure for enhanced cabin sanitation” and has a partnership with Clorox and provides a cleaning wipe to passengers boarding the aircraft.
The airline has announced a new back-to-front boarding process and deplaning down by rows, instead of all at once.
United has also announced an “all-in-one” snack bag that includes a wrapped sanitizer wipe, 8.5-ounce bottled water, stroopwafel and package of pretzels provided to all customers on flights of two hours and 20 minutes or longer.
What it’s really like to fly United right now
Seat selection: I have mid-tier Gold elite status with United, which meant I could select up to two roomier extra legroom seats at the time of booking for no additional fee, which I did at the front of the premium economy section. I kept an eye on the seat map and it was clear the flight was likely going to be very empty.
In fact, a day or so before the flight, we were upgraded to first class, which is pretty rare as a mid-tier elite flying to a United hub. When it turned out that first class was booked 100% full, however, we declined our upgrades and took seats in the standard economy cabin where there were rows and rows of empty seats.
At the gate: The Orlando airport was remarkably, noticeably empty on this late Sunday morning in mid-July.
The gate area was no exception, as it was the only flight departing an area designed for four or five different gates. Not only that, but our flight was relatively empty, so I’d guess there were no more than 40 to 50 people in a section of the airport built for hundreds.
Boarding: United relied on its normal preboarding procedures of families with kids 2 and under, Global Services, those needing extra time, etc., then called first class and then, after that, boarded from the back to the front. By the time first class boarded, about 80% of the those in the gate area were gone.
Because the flight was so empty, it was easy to keep your distance during boarding from what I could see from the gate area. We boarded last and took empty rows 24 and 25, with the permission of the gate agent and flight attendants, instead of our assigned first-class seats in that full cabin.
During boarding, each passenger was given a prepackaged sanitizing wipe to use as they entered the plane.
Cleanliness: When cleaning our seats with Lysol wipes, no visible dirt came off and the seats appeared very clean on visual inspection. You can just about see the seats shining in the picture.
In-flight experience: While our flight was very empty, know that United is not blocking middle seats or capping capacity on its flights. If your flight is booked at more than 70% capacity, however, you should be notified and given the option to change flights.
During the two-hour midday flight in economy, we were given an “all-in-one snack bag”.
Related: What it’s like to fly in the US
This included a water bottle, alcohol wipe, pretzels and Biscoff cookies. While a cart was never pushed down the aisle as far as I could tell, the flight attendants did come by to ask if we would like anything additional to drink. Flight attendants wore face masks at all the times they were visible to us, as did the other passengers.
Deplaning: Unlike with Spirit, when it was time to deplane, United called for passengers to remain seated until their rows were called to deplane in sections of just a few rows at a time. While there were still moments when people were gathering their belongings all at the same time, this was minimized by not having the whole plane do so at once. Since no one was around our rows, we didn’t have any spacing problems getting our luggage and exiting the aircraft.
Delta Air Lines
The details: Midday flight from New York City (JFK) to Minneapolis (MSP)
Here’s how Delta is working to prevent COVID transmission:
- Providing hand sanitizer in its customer service areas, including ticket counters, gates and SkyClubs
- Providing wipes to its customer service agents so they can continually wipe down surfaces
- Sanitizing SkyClubs every night using hospital-grade disinfectants. Food stations are regularly sanitized and shared serving utensils are changed frequently.
- Using an electrostatic fogging procedure to sanitize all aircraft on long-haul routes; this will eventually be rolled out to short-haul routes
- Wiping down all aircraft surfaces overnight with disinfectant
- Using HEPA filters to clean cabin air every few minutes in flight, sanitize air brought in from outside the aircraft and trap microscopic particles — including viruses
- Authorizing flight attendants to hold flights to allow for better cleaning
- Requiring all passengers to wear masks in flight, and staff to wear them in flight and on the ground; a medical exception for passengers requires a note from the airline’s doctors
- Blocking middle seats and capping capacity (50% in First Class; 60% in Main Cabin, Comfort+, and Premium Select; 75% in Delta One in aircraft with two aisles)
Seat selection: Delta is currently flying the A220-100 and the Boeing 717-200 on this route, and I specifically chose a flight that was utilizing the former. It’s newer, for one thing, and it’s more spacious.
I opted for a Comfort+ window seat on the right side of the aircraft. I currently have Gold status, and Comfort+ is my standard choice on Delta anyway, whether I’m purchasing it or getting upgraded into it. But the additional space felt like a worthwhile precaution at this moment, when close contact feels risky.
The A220-100 has a 2×3 configuration. I had originally been booked on the left side of the plane where there are two seats — and in pre-COVID times, this would always be my choice. After all, having one neighbor is better than having two, right? Well, yes, unless there’s a global pandemic. While Delta is blocking some aisle seats in rows with two seats, it’s unclear when you book which seats those will be. Knowing this, I switched my seat to the right side of the plane on the window. Per Delta’s policy, this guaranteed that I would be next to an open seat. Additionally, the window seat helps minimize contact with anyone who’s moving through the aisle — though a window seat is my preference anyway.
The best part? After I boarded the aircraft and settled in, the aisle seat in my row remained empty, so I flew solo with two empty seats to my left. Now that’s a lucky perk, global pandemic or not.
At the gate: Our aircraft boarded back-to-front, with no special seating announcement for elites. It’s not clear whether this has a significant safety impact, but it certainly made boarding faster. (So does having a bunch of empty seats, it turns out.) Strangely, this was preferable to the drawn-out boarding process that usually accompanies flights — and I have elite status. Bright yellow stickers on the floor guided guests to maintain distance in the boarding line, but no one seemed especially eager to crowd the gate.
Cleanliness: Delta isn’t just committed to keeping its aircraft clean. It’s also committed to telling you all about it. A new in-flight safety video details how often planes are cleaned and the pilot on our fight referenced the plane’s newness and spotlessness and reiterated that “Honestly, this aircraft is probably cleaner than your house.”
He was right. I was reassured for my safety and embarrassed for my house. Before these cleaning procedures, it wasn’t uncommon to be greeted at your seat by a suspiciously sticky seat-back video display, or the sad remnants of a stranger’s Biscoff ground into the carpet at your feet. You’ll see none of that now, thanks to Delta’s meticulous cleaning regime. That suspicious crumminess in the creases of seats and between the floor and the walls? Gone. I swabbed down all of my seat’s surfaces with a disinfectant wipe and it came away clean. Delta provided an individually packaged Purell wipe at boarding.
In-flight experience: I was surprised that the flight crew seemed so… happy. (Maybe because it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone, in this particular moment in American history, could be happy.) And as the cabin manager mentioned during the safety announcement, “We’re all smiling under our masks.”
All service, whether in the Sky Club at JFK Terminal 4 or in the air, was exceptionally welcoming. The flight attendant even came up to me as I was getting settled, thanked me by name for choosing Delta and mentioned how long it’s been since I last flew. It was hugely impressive, and a good way to start the flight.
Flight attendants are masked and wear gloves, and cabin service has been somewhat modified to favor prepackaged cold food. I was given a plastic bag containing a small bottle of water, Cheez-Its, a Biscoff cookie, a napkin and a single portion of Purell hand sanitizer. All of this felt different, but not like a dramatic downgrade from typical service.
The most abnormal experience was drinking a beer during cabin service, which meant it was necessary to temporarily remove my mask. I was wearing a paper mask that was easy to put on and remove between sips — something I’d recommend if you don’t want to sit fully maskless while you work your way through your beverage.
Deplaning: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen passengers move to get off a jet so fast. There was no dallying in the aisles, no awkward confusion over who should go first. Everyone just bolted. While the airlines are doing what they can to help people feel safe flying, anxiety among fliers — on my flight, anyway — still seems to be running high.
The details: Morning flight from Charlotte (CLT) to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD)
The flight discussed was one out of four flight segments I took that weekend. I had a layover in Chicago before heading to my final destination, Albuquerque (ABQ).
American’s official stated coronavirus procedures
American Airlines’ response to coronavirus has resulted in many positive changes, such as improved cleaning and flexible ticketing procedures. The airline uses electrostatic spraying with an EPA-approved disinfectant that claims to kill 99.9% of viruses and bacteria up to seven days. Also, they are deep cleaning high-touch surface areas, have installed plexiglass shields at check-in counters and more.
But unfortunately, some things haven’t changed — even amid the pandemic. American isn’t blocking middle seats or limiting their flight capacity. However, the airline is notifying customers if their flights are full and are offering them to move to more open flights, subject to availability.
This happened to me three days before takeoff, and I received an option to change my flight. I was given only one new option that flew almost eight hours later than originally planned. I declined the offer.
About 24 hours before my flight, I received another notification on my AA app asking if I would be willing to switch flights for a travel voucher. Again, I could not take the later option. But this made me wary of how full this flight was going to be.
What it’s really like to fly American right now
Holiday weekends – with Independence Day in particular – historically bring in millions of people at airports. Last year, 12 million passengers flew over the Fourth of July weekend. While demand has dropped significantly since the pandemic, this year felt almost as busy. My flight was on the morning of July 3rd out of CLT, one of American’s hubs.
Check-in and security: We arrived at the airport approximately one hour before takeoff, and it was already chaotic. Some people weren’t wearing masks, even though they’re required as soon as you step into an airport. Or even better, many people were wearing them incorrectly, with their noses or mouths completely exposed.
My friend had to check her bag, so we were directed to a self-service kiosk. Although AA’s website claims an enhanced cleaning and sanitizing of kiosks, this was virtually impossible in practice. As soon as one kiosk was empty, another passenger immediately used it after. This is where bringing in our cleaning supplies came in handy — we used wipes and hand sanitizer after every touchpoint.
The main TSA line became so long that agents redirected us to a new line. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been in a crowd in months, but security felt extremely busy. Most people were only giving each other less than a foot of space in line for security.
Seat selection: As I was flying basic economy, I could not select my seat in advance. Luckily, my friend and I were assigned to aisle seats in the same row. Since the flight was full, I was elbow-to-elbow with another passenger in the middle seat.
At the gate: We arrived at the gate approximately 15 minutes before boarding began and the area was packed with people anxiously ready to board. Since CLT is a smaller airport, it was difficult to find room to social distance from others. It didn’t help that nearby gates were also boarding passengers at the same time.
Boarding: Over the intercom, the gate agent let everyone know it was a full flight. There were no changes to the boarding process pre-pandemic. While most airlines are boarding the aircraft back-to-front now, American went along with its group boarding procedure. We were in Group 9 of 9. In this scenario, I did not mind boarding last.
Despite the floor markers attempting to place people six feet apart, the boarding process seemed unorganized. As a result, no social distancing took place.
During boarding, we were not offered any hand sanitizer, wipes or even snacks and drinks. A press release on June 26 stated that “customers on many flights receive sanitizing wipes or gel, and American has limited food and beverage delivery to reduce interactions between flight attendants and customers.” Out of the four flight segments I took that weekend, I was only given an amenity kit once — on my flight from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) back to CLT.
In-flight experience: As American has severely reduced its in-flight service and amenities, there was nothing to note here. The airline recommends purchasing your own snacks and drinks ahead of time.
American stated that on flights over 900 miles, customers will receive complimentary pretzels or Biscoff cookies and bottled water during boarding. Again, I received this bag while boarding my flight from DFW-CLT, which was a little over 900 miles. But it made me wonder why I didn’t receive anything on my longest flight segment from ORD-ABQ, which was over 1100 miles.
Although a small gesture, I still appreciated receiving the small bag of pretzels, a mini bottle of water and a packet of hand sanitizer. Still, I was never offered any disinfecting wipes.
Finally, while most airlines have gotten rid of in-flight magazines and brochures, American still had them in the back of seat pockets.
Deplaning: The deplaning process also felt normal, as people immediately rose from their seats as soon as the seatbelt sign was turned off. Hardly any social distancing was practiced here, as no cues for deplaning were given.
Your experience flying today will depend on your chosen airline, the airport and your fellow passengers. No two experiences will likely be the same — even when flying with the same airline. The best advice we can give is to head to the airport prepared with disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer and snacks to keep you fortified throughout your journey.
Featured image by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
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