Air travel in the time of COVID-19

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

What would it take to get you back on an airplane?

We seem to have reached a collective understanding that the general quarantine measures under which the vast majority of us lived during April and May simply aren’t sustainable — either that, or we’ve reached the limits of our patience. While we’re certainly not back to the carefree mingling of pre-COVID days, we are finding ways to live with our new reality as we currently understand it. 

With summer arriving, there’s a general willingness to test our limits, however cautiously. Staying cooped up and isolated in early spring is challenging enough, but when the days grow longer and the thermometer rises to sultry levels, we’re programmed by nature to want to go out. Many of our favorite local businesses are coming back to life, even if in a limited form, and it’s nearly impossible to resist the allure. 

But that doesn’t mean we’re ready to abandon all caution and jam ourselves into tight spaces with crowds of our fellows. Enjoying a restaurant meal with a few friends at a generously spaced table in an outdoor patio is one thing: sitting in an enclosed metal tube 30,000 feet in the air with a collection of strangers is quite another. So it requires a very good, or at least a very strong, reason to contemplate air travel: a personal emergency, perhaps, or a work obligation that for one reason or another simply can’t be met via Zoom. 

In our case, it was a celebration. 

My husband and I flew halfway across the continent last week because of a family occasion — which may strike you as frivolous, especially as I am not at liberty to describe its exact nature. You’ll simply have to take my word for it that this occasion was of weighty enough significance that it merited braving the prospect of air travel to attend in person.

We didn’t take this lightly. We are neither of us spring chickens, for one thing, so we have no illusions of immortality or invulnerability. Out of regard for ourselves in particular and public health in general we have been vigilant since March. But we also know there is no such thing as risk-free living, and in this situation, we were going to be there in person unless we were physically or legally prevented from doing so — which we weren’t, so we booked our tickets and packed our bags.

That didn’t mean throwing caution to the winds.

Our packing included plenty of readily accessible face masks, nitrile gloves, and industrial-strength hand sanitizer (in travel-size containers). We researched the COVID-prevention protocols of our airline and the airports we’d be traveling through. We figured out where to park so as to minimize our contact with crowded shuttles. 

We also got ourselves tested for COVID-19 prior to departing, so we could travel with as much assurance as possible that we weren’t exposing anybody else. And then, as prepared as we could reasonably be, we set off.

With family spread over several western states, in non-pandemic times we travel fairly frequently. Our concern wasn’t especially for the airplane itself since we knew the passenger load would be low and spread out and that the air would be filtered and recirculated frequently — what you breathe in most commercial aircraft is cleaner than in many office buildings. The bigger worry was the airports, especially getting through security.

The airport experience turned out to be ho-hum.

While travel is picking up a bit, passenger numbers are still a fraction of their pre-pandemic levels, which means lines at security are close to non-existent. Both airports we went through required everyone to wear face masks and had stations offering spare masks and hand sanitizer, with lots of signage encouraging the use of both and reminders about social distancing. TSA agents were all masked and gloved, and people were generally respectful and cooperative.

That said, it was interesting to observe the subset of folks who seemed convinced that a face mask somehow confers protection even when worn only on the chin, or dangling from one ear, or shoved into a shirt pocket. 

Hence the importance of taking responsibility.

I didn’t see any direct enforcement of the mask requirement: apparently the airport authorities are reluctant to be too heavy-handed with the traveling public. Luckily, the willing cooperation of the vast majority of travelers attested to the positive power of social pressure. 

Given the looks that the unmasked received from others — as it turns out, it’s entirely possible to deliver a withering expression entirely from north of the cheekbones — it is rather impressive just how oblivious some people can be.

The stink-eye is warranted: if there were ever a time and a place for getting judgy on our brethren, an airport during a pandemic is it. Still, even with the few scofflaws in our midst, I felt pretty safe. As with the principle of herd immunity, if enough of us follow the rules and proceed with common sense, we can hope to protect not only ourselves but the outliers — those who are either incapable, uninformed, or resistant — from launching another uncontrolled outbreak of disease.

The plane itself? Easy-peasy.

On the way out, our airplane was at perhaps 40% capacity. On the way home, at least two-thirds of the seats were empty. Not good news for the struggling airlines, but it made for quick and easy, as well as socially-distanced, boarding and deplaning. 

The mask rule was more vigorously applied on the plane than in the terminal, I am happy to say, and as far as I could see, all passengers complied. We were allowed to unmask for eating and drinking, but since the food and beverage service, even in first class, was limited to a “snack kit” consisting of a small bottle of water, a bag of pretzels and a cookie, there wasn’t a lot of consuming to be done. 

How all this would work on a long-haul flight I can’t say. Since there are so few international flights currently, it’s something of a moot point. All I can attest to is that for a flight of two or three hours, it was a pretty easy and comfortable situation.

And when we returned, I have never gotten off a plane, onto a shuttle, back to the car and back on the freeway toward home with such speed and efficiency in all my traveling days.

Yes, we’re getting tested again.

Just to be on the safe and well-informed side — after all, as reassuring as the whole travel experience was, my husband and I were more exposed to more people than we have been for three months. We feel fine, but just in case any coronavirus got past our guard we want to be able to alert the family members we visited with. And until we’ve been home and healthy for two weeks, we will be exercising extra caution.  

For us, having a joyful occasion to anticipate, to attend, and to have memories of was life-affirming and well worth taking a calculated risk. I wouldn’t go jetting off on a whim these days, but from my tiny slice of experience, I can say that you may not have to forego some of life’s most significant events, even if they’re taking place somewhere far outside your COVID bubble.

Safe travels — and keep your mask on.


  1. Thank you for sharing your travel experiences Jan. Among my friends you are a pioneer on this one. The one thing that distressed me was to hear that TSA Were not enforcing the mask rules.
    I recently visited my dentists office in Napa and was appalled that the staff allowed a patient to enter without a mask and gloves in spite of Big Notices on the doors requiring both. When I protested to a member of the staff she shrugged and said, “”well to each his own.” I was furious but realized that taking it out on a young technician was not going to solve the problem. After my appointment I wrote a very strong letter to the head of the practice suggesting that it was his responsibility to train and support his staff in correct procedures and that the reputation of his practice not to mention the safety of his patients and staff was on the line here.
    I feel strongly that if these rules are not enforced by those who allegedly have the power to enforce them and it is left to the discretion and common sense of individuals, we are all being put at great risk. I urge anyone who sees such violation to complain in writing. Unless we protest, as we have seen recently with the Black lives matter protests, nothing will change. Why are we all so afraid to make a fuss? Don’t our lives matter?

    • Indeed they do, and good for you for writing to the head of your dental practice. It is surprising how cowardly we all become when face-to-face (or mask-to-mask): maybe if we were inside our cars we would be more assertive!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Jan. We are planning to fly to Denver at the end of July. Unless, as you wrote, we are “physically or legally prevented from doing so”. The momentous occasion – our grandson’s 5th birthday. My sister painted a similar picture of airports and airplanes when she flew from Florida to Massachusetts. I love your idea of getting tested prior to and after the flights. I am going to add that to our to-do lists.

    • I thought of you as I was writing this . . . and I’m happy for you that you get to go! It’s so life-affirming to have something like that to look forward to.

  3. Yes most people do not enjoy personal confrontations and usually the best policy is to avoid them while making sure that an “Official” complaint is registered if appropriate.
    I should add to my story that I received a call from the head of the dental practice today thanking me for my letter and assuring me that he had assembled his staff and that steps had been taken so that this would not happen again. I believed him to be sincere so hopefully some good resulted from my letter.

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