My last trip before coronavirus: Flying United basic economy, from Denver to Austin

Jun 1, 2020

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It’s been nearly three months since I last boarded a plane. And even back in early March, flying wasn’t quite how it had been in the past. In the good old B.C. days — before coronavirus — my biggest concerns were making sure I had enough time to make it to my gate before final call; remembering to finish the contents of my water bottle before reaching the bag scanners at security checkpoints; and avoiding a middle seat at all costs. I’ve changed my mind since.

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But by March 8, when I boarded a return flight from Denver to Austin, there was a new tension among my fellow travelers. The novel coronavirus had not yet been designated a pandemic by the World Health Organization, but the threat of infection loomed large in our minds, if not yet in the air. For the first time in my non-germophobe life, I found myself wondering when my plane seat, Clear pod and lounge table had last been cleaned.

Here’s what it was like flying basic economy in early March, on an Airbus 319 operated by United Airlines: Flight 2377, from Denver (DEN) to Austin (AUS).

On the ground

I arrived in Denver just before 10 a.m. on a connecting flight from San Diego. This major airport hub is normally bustling with passengers. But on this particular day, mere days before Colorado Gov. Jared Solis put the state under a stay-at-home order, there were far fewer travelers than usual.

Related: A state-by-state guide to reopening

To test the security experience, I left the transit area in order to pass through the TSA checkpoints again. As previously mentioned, the threat of COVID-19 had left me seriously squeamish about touching airport kiosks, especially given that reports show they are some of the germiest spots in any airport.

United is one of my main airlines, and I usually use mobile boarding passes via the airline app to bypass in-person check-in at the airport altogether. But for the sake of review, I pushed through the process, which was straightforward and had plenty of kiosks for everyone at a reasonable distance.

Also for the sake of review, we had opted to purchase a basic economy ticket for my flight home. That precluded any acknowledgement of my United elite status (Silver in 2020, down from 1K in 2019, alas), as well as any checked baggage allowance. Since I was traveling light, I didn’t mind the lack of luggage, but I did not particularly appreciate being assigned a middle seat by default.

Boarding pass in hand, I made my way to the nearest bathroom to scrub my hands.

At the time, social distancing wasn’t a concept many of us had heard of yet, let alone begun embracing, so my fellow travelers and I crammed into the Denver Automatic Gateway Transit System underground train system as if we were going to miss our flights in the next two minutes.

I decided to get to Gate B27 early in order to attempt sweet-talking the gate agent into letting me have an aisle or window seat. Under normal circumstances, the answer is usually “no” for basic economy travelers. But since my flight was relatively empty, the kindly gate agent — aptly named Sunny — immediately issued me an updated boarding pass for 24F, a window seat on the right side of the plane when facing forward.

My fellow travelers seemed a little more aloof than usual — we all felt more wary about the unknowns of the virus than we wanted to let on, I guess. The lack of competition for space seemed to work in our favor, as we all spread out more than usual instead of crowding by the boarding lines.

Boarding went smoothly and quickly, as there were just a handful of us on the flight. As a basic economy traveler, my elite status did not supersede my boarding class and I found myself one of the last travelers to board. We departed Denver on time, and I was on my way back home to Austin.

In the air

When it comes to flight reviews, it’s easy to fall back on the trite phrase, “nothing to write home about.” I won’t use it here, but I didn’t find much worthy of note on this routine A319 flight. My fellow passengers seemed as subdued as I felt, and flight attendants looked the other way as a couple of travelers quietly moved seats after the seatbelt sign was off, spreading out into different rows for both comfort as well as safety.

I got lucky and found I had the whole row to myself. But now that travelers are straight-up purchasing extra seats on flights in order to ensure their on-board distance from other travelers, I am grateful that I had my space on this final flight before lockdown.

I couldn’t help but notice that the in-flight magazine, safety cards and credit card sign-up flyer looked like they had recently been handled, either by a flight attendant or by the traveler in my seat before me. I decided to put the thought out of my mind.

As mentioned before, this flight took place a couple of weeks before most of the U.S. went on lockdown and businesses began actively preventing the spread of disease however best they could. But United was already making a few proactive concessions toward sanitation at the time. Early in my flight, I was handed an alcohol wipe with no explanation. I wasn’t quite sure if it was meant for my hands or for my tray table, so I carefully wiped first my hands, and then my tray table.

I hadn’t had time to grab a meal before boarding my flight, so I purchased a pack of beef jerky from the in-flight menu. I have never been so grateful for individually packaged snacks. It was a mental thing at the time, but I decided to eat my snacks directly from their packaging without using my hands, carefully squeezing my cookies up through the foil. It definitely made for some messy jerky crumbs, I’ll tell you that.

After a particularly hectic week of work and travel, I felt like I had earned myself a drink, so I purchased a pre-mixed Old Fashioned from the menu as well. I know that liquor bottles have to be opened by flight attendants and cannot be served with the lids still on; however, I’m not sure if the rule is the same for mixed drinks, or if leaving the bottle capped was a concession to potential contamination.

Either way, I wouldn’t recommend these cocktails unless you like sugary drinks. 

We left Denver amidst sunshine and blue skies, on a relatively short-haul flight that lasted right around two hours, give or take. This gave me plenty of time to finish my snacks, pull out my laptop and get a little bit of work done. 

As we began descending into Austin, the sky morphed into gray, cloudy nothingness. It’s as if the world knew something I didn’t: Travel as we knew it was coming to an end, and it was time to get in our feels.

Despite the emotions, our landing was smooth, professional and prompt. We arrived in Austin 12 minutes early, and I walked into my home airport just a couple of minutes later.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was my final flight for some time to come. I’m feeling surprisingly nostalgic about it, and I can’t wait to get back in the air again when it’s safe for me and everyone I will encounter. That being said, I’m not sure a United A319 will be my first choice for my first post-coronavirus flight.

All photos by Katherine Fan for The Points Guy.

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