I Flew During COVID-19. Here’s What Happened

Sitting in an airport and flying on a plane seems like the most dangerous and frightening act right now. But, as the holidays quickly approach and many of us consider flying home (especially out-of-state students), COVID-19 adds some obstacles. Airports during Thanksgiving and the holiday season conjure images of endless TSA lines and packed terminals as fellow flyers pile presents into their carry-on luggage. As annoying and stressful as these experiences are during a normal season, this year we have COVID-19 to further complicate our plans. At what point does our health, and the health of our families, outweigh the joy of seeing loved ones? 

Let me share my experience flying recently and how the airlines are adapting to the COVID-19 guidelines, and if they’re actually being followed. 

The airline’s guidelines: 

A few weeks ago, I flew from Tampa International Airport (TPA) to Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) to spend Halloween with my family and see the leaves change. I flew via American Airlines, whose rules are to wear masks in the airport before the flight, while boarding, during the flight, while deplaning and at the airport after the flight. When I booked my ticket, I was notified of their rules and informed that everyone had to follow them to be allowed on the flight. 

I wore my mask from when I got dropped off at departures in Tampa until I got picked up at arrivals in Philadelphia. Because I was wearing my mask for several hours (between waiting for my flight and flying, I wore it for about five hours) I wore my super lightweight mask from Old Navy (you can buy a 6-pack here for $12.50, and they have some super cute patterns). I also have sensitive skin (the mask-ne is real), so I put a spot treatment on my problem areas underneath my mask. 

Other airlines have stricter precautions in place. Frontier Airlines does temperature checks on all passengers before they board and have HEPA air filters on their aircraft that filter out viruses. Most airlines, including American, have flexible options with flights so you can change your flight until 24 hours before your flight time without a penalty or fee. My returning flight was particularly full, so they offered passengers a $100 credit to anyone willing to change their flight to a different time or day. So, if your travel plans are flexible, consider moving to a less full flight and get some sweet creds while you’re at it. 

The airports: 

Neither airport was busy. I flew on Sundays both times, but there weren’t long TSA lines and few gates were in use. Although the TSA lines were short, the officers did ask me to pull down my mask to confirm my identity. So, be prepared for that. 

On my returning flight, I departed from a terminal with no other gates in use, so I could sit far away from other passengers while waiting for my flight. Be careful though! Because fewer gates are in use and the airports are not as busy, there were fewer restaurants and convivence stores open. So, think ahead about food and maybe bring something along with you. Just don’t forget you can’t bring liquids through security.

The airlines also don’t provide drinks or snacks on their refreshment’s carts anymore, so don’t count on that either. I made the mistake of not eating before my flight or bringing something along, so I stared longingly at my neighbor’s Subway sandwich for my entire flight.

During the flight:

As the gate attendants began to announce boarding groups, the crowds began to form. Despite encouraging passengers to stand 6 feet apart, trying to get on the flight before others appeared to be more important. I stayed where I was sitting until the crowds died down, so I could board without standing so close to others.

I was fortunate enough to snag a window seat on both flights and without a person occupying the middle seat for my departing flight. However, on my returning flight, I did have a person in the middle seat. I cleaned my seat and tray table with the sanitizing wipe the airline provided (they also gave us each some delicious Biscoff cookies). I did feel a little uncomfortable with a person sitting so close to me. She seemed nice enough and was a Gator fan so it was chill, but it felt odd and a little dangerous. Perhaps I should have taken the option of switching to the less full flight.

I was pleasantly surprised to find most everyone obeying the masking policies. And those that weren’t wearing their masks properly were politely asked to follow the rules and be courteous to other passengers. The flight attendants were very insistent about adhering to the policies and not afraid to tell people to put on their masks. And, surprisingly, no one protested. I think everyone understood the importance of the masking policies or at least tolerated them. 

When it came time to leave the place, the flight attendants insisted that passengers remain seated during deplaning until the doors were open and to leave in sections, so people don’t crowd each other. But people didn’t listen or care, so most stood up a soon as the plane stopped, too close to others. On my returning flight to Tampa, a young person – a man about my age – across the aisle from me immediately stood up once the plane stopped, despite the flight attendants’ frequent and insistent directions not to do so. Not wanting to cause a scene, I didn’t say anything. However, the man sitting in the aisle seat on my row did say something, kindly reminding the passenger that it wasn’t his turn to deplane yet, and he was supposed to stay seated. The young man claimed he hadn’t heard the instructions and sat back down. 

As much as these protocols, restrictions, instructions and guidelines try to control the spread of COVID-19, really, they only work if people follow them. Or at least care to listen to them. We all make mistakes and forget to put on our masks or blank out when someone says something – I get it, all of these are new and adjustments are tricky – but they’re important. So, it’s the effort that counts. Here are some tips to help you stay safe: 

  1. 1. Bring out the big luggage

    To help keep people at a distance, which is a little hard if you’re like me and hate confrontation, try to keep your carry-on luggage in front of you. This way the person in front of you can’t get to close. Also, a big backpack or some other luggage behind you will prevent the person behind you in line from getting too close.

  2. 2. Watch those surfaces

    Bring lots of sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer to help clean all those nasty plane surfaces. Airlines do have sanitizing plans in place, but I always feel assured when I do it myself. They also provided one sanitizing wipe, but I like multiple for all the other surfaces I touch going through the airport. I also like to wear long-sleaves when I fly so I can open things with my sleeve covering my hand rather than my bare skin. Layers are also nice because my flight was freezing!

  3. 3. Double up

    Wear two masks if that makes you feel safer. For example, a surgical or N-95 mask underneath your cloth mask. And try not to talk to your neighbors. To be honest, I usually don’t talk to them anyway and just chill with my earbuds on, but this is helpful to limit close contact with others.

  4. 4. Window seats FTW

    Try to get a window seat if at all possible. Maybe I’m just imagining it, but there is a little more space in the window seats than the middle or aisle seats, just to give you a little more distance. The window is also good for curling up next to and napping as I did on my flight. 

  5. 5. Fly on a weekday

    Flying during the holidays can be busy, so try to fly on a weekday when it’s less crowded. Because UF’s spring break has been moved to January, try flying during that week when the crowds have died down a bit. 

  6. 6. Trains, planes and automobiles

    If flying is not an option right now and just too dangerous, consider some other form of transportation. There are some train stations in Orlando, Tampa and Miami with Amtrack trains that can take you to most other big cities. They’re usually less busy, but they do take significantly longer. 

  7. 7. Stay home and chill

    If transportation home for the holidays still looks like it isn’t going to happen, consider staying in Gainesville (or wherever you are) for the break and doing some seasonally appropriate activities with friends. You can check out my article on tips for planning a Friendsgiving here

There are definitely some things to worry about when flying right now. As much as airlines try to make things safe, the decision is ultimately yours. This holiday season will be one like no other and as comforting and fun as celebrating the holidays at home sound right now, remember your safety is paramount.