What I experienced flying 11 weeks after coronavirus grounded me

Many flights remain empty, though passenger traffic is slowly increasing, according to numbers from the Transportation Security Administration.
Many flights remain empty, though passenger traffic is slowly increasing, according to numbers from the Transportation Security Administration. | Dennis Lennox

I flew.

Those are two words I haven’t said for at least 11 weeks, as trip after trip was canceled or indefinitely postponed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Finally, I had the opportunity to travel again.

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With the long Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start to summer upon us I wanted to get away. Anywhere. Just somewhere since pools were closed at home.

So, I started looking at which states were fully open. It soon became apparent that if I wanted the best weather, pools and open restaurants it was Arizona. But first I had to get there, which meant going to an airport.

After a monotonous Uber ride to Denver International Airport I made my way through a mostly empty concourse to the check-in desks for Delta Air Lines, which save for one employee were completely deserted. Using the priority line for passengers with frequent flyer elite status was pointless.

The airport looked empty, but it was probably busier than most people expected. In fact, new data from the Transportation Security Administration reveals that more passengers are flying now than at any point since travel collapsed in March. This might explain my 5-minute wait at the single open TSA checkpoint. Clear and Precheck — two of the fast-track options normally available — didn’t appear available.

While many airports, including Denver, have adopted policies requiring face masks the policy isn’t actually enforced. More than half the people I saw walking about the terminal weren’t wearing a mask in the intended manner. Others put on a mask for boarding the plane, but quickly dispensed with it once settled into the privacy of their seat.

This undoubtedly enrages mask-wearing virtue signalers, but enforcing masks or gloves is the last thing the travel industry needs right now. People won’t travel if travel doesn’t look and feel safe. It’s as simple as that.

Sure, passengers appreciate short-term gimmicks like blocking the much-despised middle seat in economy-class (aka steerage), but that is hardly realistic moving forward as demand returns. Instead, airlines should use coronavirus as an excuse to improve passenger experiences after years of reduced legroom, shrinking seat width and removing lavatories to add more seats in already cramped cabins.

My first flight from Denver to Los Angeles International Airport was mostly empty with maybe 15 passengers on a Boeing 737 equipped with 160 seats. Needless to say, social distancing wasn’t an issue.

After an uneventful layover, which included a visit to the virtually empty Delta Sky Club, I was on another flight to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. This flight aboard a smaller but still comfy plane, a regional jet operated for Delta by Sky West, was fuller and could have passed for a pre-coronavirus flight on a quiet day.

Besides empty seats the biggest difference was the complete lack of inflight service, even in the otherwise expensive first-class seats.

Flight attendants on Delta provided only a miniature bottle of water and some cheap snacks, though passengers are able to bring their own nonalcoholic beverages and food aboard. This is being done under the guise of safety even though coronavirus isn’t a foodborne illness. In reality, it’s about cutting costs, which means it could be a long time before anything resembling full-service returns.

Here’s the bottom line: I would have no problem flying tomorrow or next week, if the airfare is affordable and the flight timings worked for my schedule. With that said, traveling outside the country probably isn’t realistic, at least until late June or early July — if only because international flights are few and far between right now. 

What to expect if you travel

The insanely cheap airfares of several weeks ago aren’t easy to find, which makes sense as airlines desperately need to make money with fewer people flying. In some cases, airfares to several popular destinations for this weekend were at or above $1,000.

At the same time, a significant reduction in flight frequencies means it isn’t possible to fly somewhere if connecting flights are required.

As I’ve written previously, the travel industry believes there is significant pent-up demand. Yet, many people are stuck driving until airlines sense there is enough market demand to bring back flights. Even when that happens some destinations will never see the kind of capacity they enjoyed before coronavirus.

This reality will undoubtedly give a major boost to domestic destinations, as the quintessentially American road trip is once again fashionable.

Travelers should also be mindful that some hotels in destinations that are otherwise reopened have reduced amenities and services. If having a pool or eating in a hotel restaurant are important then confirm with the hotel before booking.

It’s also important to pay close attention to the final bill, as influential View from the Wing blogger Gary Leff has reported that Hyatt is considering a so-called coronavirus fee. Hopefully, hoteliers will learn from the resort fee scam that customers aren’t happy with hidden costs.

Spires and Crosses is a weekly travel column. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter and Instagram.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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