Lessons on Air Travel During COVID-19

A beautiful thunderstorm over Colorado

If you haven’t figured it out reading my other posts by now, I get a satisfaction from planning and packing and executing that plan. I enjoy getting through security with as little trouble as possible when I fly. I enjoy efficiency and knowing what to expect. Well, something we had not experienced was flying during circumstances like COVID. Lesson #1 Expect the Unexpected.

We had been “good” all March through July. No grocery store visits (we went once in February and then did pick ups or delivery for the few bare necessities we needed in the meantime), no social interactions outside of our immediate families, porch drops for at risk family members, only work and only home. Being around people in general for the first time in 4 months was enough to cause anxiety, much less the unknowns of navigating airlines and airports with new standards in place.

What could get us to fly after being pretty isolated for so long? My brother’s wedding! Despite the circumstances, we were all pretty excited to be travelling again and to visit my brother and his new bride to be. Our tickets were purchased in January and we had decided as long as the State of Washington didn’t issue a quarantine for visitors from South Carolina, we were going to go. In January, flights were cheaper to buy a one way ticket to Seattle and then a one way ticket back to Charleston. This got us on a United flight out and a Delta flight back.

I had spent weeks researching the new standards of air travel. Masks, snacks, back up mask, hand sanitizer, check in procedures, staying 6 feet apart. I picked our seats meticulously. I watched for updates to the industry as everyone adjusted to rapidly updating information. I was already pretty used to complying to these measures with similar measures in place at work. Even so, my normal calm and cool travel style was a little cramped with anxiety of the unknown.

Even though Charleston is our 3rd choice as far as distance goes for airports, we always look forward to flying out of the Charleston International Airport. Pleasant locals, two straightforward terminals and a great view of C-17’s and F-18’s performing maneuvers at Joint Base Charleston. We left home early, because you never know what kind of traffic you might hit on the way down. This got us to the airport about two hours before departure. Normally, this is a pretty good thing, for us, though, it turned in to a very long wait.

All masked up, there was absolutely no one in front of us at TSA. We had to pull our masks down for a minute to match our faces with our ID’s. I’m used to being able to get all of my stuff ready to go through security while I wait in line. It was unusual to do all of that while I was at the belt to put everything through the scanner. We got through in a breeze and my lighthearted Daddy stopped and looked at the “look what we caught” TSA poster. I’m not sure what he said to to the lady sitting at the desk behind it, but when I walked by, I told her “I’m sorry, he doesn’t get out much” and she giggled and giggled. Lesson #2: Don’t lose your sense of humor.

Everyone stopped for the necessary we’ve been in the car for two hours bathroom break, filled our travel water bottles and headed for the gate. That’s when we got the phone call from United. Our original connecting flight from CHS-DCA was delayed. Plane issue. We wouldn’t make it to DC in time to catch their flight to SEA. Less planes, less pilots, less options. Our only choice to get to Seattle in time for the wedding (rescheduled) to the following day was to fly to Chicago 3 hours after our original flight was scheduled.

Lesson# 3: Hurry up and wait is still the name of the game, but the wait may be emphasized, so be patient. We were glad for at least one option, but 5 hours in the Charleston airport ahead of 6-8 hours of flying and layover, on top of the rental car pickup and following 2 hour drive was not how we saw this going.

No worries! Time for a good meal! We had previously enjoyed a stone fired pizza in the terminal (real food, not standard airport fare) so we made our way over. Much to our dismay, the only options at the airport were the typical Hudson News and Burger King. Luckily we had prepared for such an occurrence and had sufficient amounts of food to make a meal out of. My parents, on the other hand, spent a fortune on sandwiches and snacks. Lesson #4: Be prepared and Lesson #5: Be prepared for disappointment

We all had our ways of dealing with the wait. My dad played video games on his phone, my mom scrolled through social media, my husband watched airplanes and recorded tail numbers for his plane spotting logbook. I read my book and watched the runways.

Prior to boarding, the gate crew practically paraded the cleaning crew on to the airplane. We boarded from back to front, which makes way more sense from an efficiency standpoint anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if this became a normal practice, after first class and priority boarding of course. Upon boarding, we were greeted with a sanitizing wipe and smiling faces (even if you couldn’t see the smiles). We wiped down our seats, arm rests, air vents and buttons. I found pretzels in between my seat and my husbands. Lesson #6: “Clean” is never really clean.

If you have to wear a mask, it might as well be fun!

We realized they must have upgraded us to their version of economy plus. We had a little bit nicer seats than a few rows behind us. The flight was pretty empty and surprisingly, we didn’t have anyone outside of our party within 6ft of us. One question did pop up during the safety briefing, do you remove your mask to put on the oxygen mask if the cabin lost pressure? Funny thought in the moment, but clearly, these were unprecedented times.

Moody Weather for Departure

Our flight to O’Hare landed with barely enough time to traverse its confusing layout, even though it was a pretty empty airport. We did decide to order food in O’Hare though, we didn’t know when we would have another chance with a very late arrival into Seattle. Lesson #7 Think ahead.

Pretty empty O’Hare

We all ordered, my mom waited for food and I made my way to the gate which should have begun the boarding processed. Our party was paged almost immediately. They were rearranging seats to get middle seat opened back up. It was crazy to me that they had booked them in the first place with all of the other measures in place. United wasn’t as committed to spacing out customers as they initially appeared. Lesson #8 It’s easier for airlines to talk to the talk than walk the walk.

Boarding was a little more dramatic leaving Chicago. There were several first class customers upset about boarding procedures. The flight attendant seemed peeved, but reminded them as a business class passenger they could board at any time. I know I wouldn’t want everyone bumping in to me if I was in first. We all leave at the same time anyway.

Once settled on the plane, I found out my sanitizing wipe had gone dry and no one to ask during boarding. I ended up using my personal sanitizing spray on the dry wipe. Lesson #9 your own sanitizer is a must. Surprisingly, the food place didn’t include my order in the bag. I ended up eating a patty off of my dad’s double cheeseburger, a few fries from my husband and more of my prepacked snacks (see Lessons 4 & 5 again). In flight entertainment with Dish was similarly disappointing. Other airlines had spoiled us with onDemand offerings.

Arriving in Seattle with a few end of the night flights, things appeared normal for 1 am at SEATAC, at first. They were limiting how many people could ride on their shuttles, lines for those picking up rental cars were long. Once we arrived at the rental facility, you immediately saw that staffing was significantly reduced. One check in counter for all of the car companies, which was at least 8 of them (see lesson # 3 again). What a relief it was to take off our masks and roll the windows down in that rental car! We had them on except to eat or drink briefly for the last 13 hours straight.

While we were in Washington, there were mixed responses to COVID. In the city and in town, masks and social distancing were the norm. In the more rural areas, we saw signage such as “we won’t violate your HIPPA rights, if you aren’t wearing a mask, we will assume you have a health condition that is aggravated by wearing a mask”. Overall, it was a beautiful trip and so was the wedding, despite having been rescheduled and moved to a new location just a few months before they said “I do”. It was lucky they did too. Just a few days later, all gatherings over 10 people were banned, even weddings.

A beautiful day and location for a wedding!

Anyone who knows how wonderfully exhausting wedding weekends can be won’t be surprised when I say that we were looking forward to heading home. Our return to the airport truly showed how COVID had impacted this major port on the West Coast. The normally bustling international counters were shuttered. TSA had no lines. By comparison, other than Denver under construction, my longest wait for TSA has been at SEATAC.

Except for our party, empty TSA lines at SEATAC

It was refreshing to be back on a Delta flight after having flown United a few days prior. It felt genuinely cleaner, the staff significantly less stressed, the ride smoother. It’s every couple’s economy class dream to have an empty seat in their row, and Delta has committed to this practice on every flight. Snack service was a prebagged kit early on and then a drink cart later. It was nice to get the whole can of ginger ale and being asked if I wanted ice or not. Lesson #10: Delta truly is the superior American Airline Atlanta was a ghost town compared to past visits, but after an overnight flight, we were too tired to care about what was available and what wasn’t. We were just ready to get home. Charleston is very expedient in getting your bags to you, and not just during limited arrival flights, so we made it out of the airport pretty quickly. Lesson #12: Small airports can have big advantages. We made it home safe and sound and no one caught COVID (although we were extremely cautious for the next two weeks). Lesson #13 There’s no place like home.

All in all, the lessons from traveling are lessons that we typically apply regardless of a crisis or not, just with a few extra feet and masks.

Lesson #14 “Adventure is out there!” – Up

2 thoughts on “Lessons on Air Travel During COVID-19

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