Recently I flew to Houston from Charlotte. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as it was my first trip on American Airlines since COVID-19 began impacting travel. In case you have a trip coming up, and you aren’t sure what is going to be different, here are some observations about that particular experience.
At the end of June going into Independence Day, there was practically no road traffic. This might have changed since then, but my commute from home to Charlotte Douglas was incredibly quick. It actually surprised me; however, I was in for another surprise that I could not have anticipated at all. And I had heard absolutely no one mention it in conversation or in media.
All the long-term parking was completely closed. I came around the bend and faced huge fields of empty pavement. Here and there were singular vehicles dotting the landscape as if they’d been abandoned for an episode of “The Walking Dead.” I had not considered this, and feared I would have to drive all the way back home, schedule an Uber, wait for that, then come all the way back. That would have cut it dangerously close to boarding. At first it looked like Daily Parking was also closed or full, but when I asked a security guard he told me to loop around and try that anyway. Long Term parking is $7 per day. Daily is $10. But I didn’t have time for the other option. I was so relieved that I decided to just pay extra for the 10 days I would be gone.
I am happy to say that nearly 100 percent of the people in the terminal were wearing masks. There were clearly delineated spots spaced out for waiting in line. The person behind me wearing a MAGA hat was purposefully standing closer behind me than he was supposed to, but I finally cut him a hard enough look to make him relent. Otherwise, everyone was complying with social distancing. Despite the extra spacing, the line wasn’t any longer: Practically no one was flying that day. People were coming in slower through the scanner, so I was not crowded while recollecting my property from the bins.
ID Check and X-Rays
When you get to the security agent, they will ask you to scan your documents yourself. Once your information comes up, they will ask you to pull your mask all the way down long enough to check your face. You then immediately replace it. The process of taking out electronics, liquids, shoes, phones and everything in your pockets is exactly the same.
Despite there being no traffic driving to the airport and relatively quick security screening, the gates themselves were absolutely stuffed full of people. I imagine it must be because fewer flights force people to funnel themselves into the remaining options. I would put mask compliance at nearly 100 percent; however, people did take their masks up and down to eat and drink. I did not see anyone making political statements about not wearing them. Be aware that small children do not have to wear masks, in case you are sensitive to being around them. I cannot account for it (perhaps it was all the strange people wearing masks?), but the children were even more distressed than usual. Small kids don’t generally like airports as it is, but something that day was particularly worrisome for them.
All social distancing is out the door. Just forget it. People always make a mad rush for the gate, as if we aren’t all going to the exact same place at the exact same time. If you are sensitive to this proximity to others, be aware that you will not be able to avoid the crowding at this point.
If you have heard that American Airlines is keeping middle seats open, you can just let go of that expectation right now: My flight was packed to the gills. I remember now that the gate agents were asking people to take later flights (because the flight was oversold, as per usual). However, the language was subtly adjusted. They didn’t announce the flight was full, they said, “This is a busy flight.” Busy. Not full. Busy.
There is absolutely no way to socially distance in flight. That will not happen. If you cannot tolerate being close to people right now, then you should plan for a different mode of travel. I cannot speak for other airlines, but Charlotte Douglas is a hub for American Airlines, and all of those flights are being oversold as if it were any other time.
There is no in-flight service. As you come aboard the flight attendant will hand you a paper bag with single use items inside. There is a small bottle of water, some single wrapped portions of snacky stuff and a wet nap. I could be mistaken, but I don’t remember First Class being offered any alcohol. If that is a perk you expect, check first before you pay more for the ticket.
Masks are required by everyone on American Airline flights. If you refuse to wear a mask, you could be expelled from the plane and permanently banned from future flights with American. Or maybe the ban is for a year? Either way, they take masks very seriously on board. Everyone was compliant during my flight.
Houston versus Charlotte
Let me be frank: I was afraid for weeks ahead of my trip. At the time, Texas was making some kind of point about not wearing masks or social distancing. My friend there reminded me the day before my flight that I needed to wear a mask, “just because it’s what you have to do these days.” That dismissive attitude was disturbing.
Depending on where you go, you may find the locals at your destination to be more or less rigorous about taking precautions against the coronavirus. My experience in Texas was such that I self quarantined for two weeks when I finally got home. Do not take for granted that people in different places will treat the risks as seriously as you might. After my isolation, I returned to work and have had no problems; however, the way people there treated precautions with anger and contempt was startling.
Be aware that states may close their borders to each other. From Houston I went to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Louisiana was finally coming down from its peak, just as Texas was beginning to crest. My return flight was out of Houston, but while we were in Louisiana we heard Louisiana was going to stop the flow of traffic in and out of Texas. As a precaution I spent the extra $200 to switch my flight home out of New Orleans. The border closure did not happen, but consider getting two one-way tickets if you will be traveling between states during your journey. You might want to plan to fly home from wherever your last outing takes place, rather than making a circuit all the way back to your point of arrival.
The journey home was uneventful, and nothing on the return was different from the departure. I did notice that people were far more polite at both airports than I had anticipated. I think everyone was aware of how additionally stressful it might be, and so I perceived that everyone was on their best behavior. It was very considerate. Given my trek through Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi (places where people “don’t believe in coronavirus” and “don’t believe in masks”), I felt it was only fair that I stay home for two weeks. If you are traveling to hot spots, perhaps you should also plan for that when making your arrangements? North Carolina generally, and Charlotte Mecklenburg in particular, have done a comparatively good job at keeping our numbers low. It would be a shame to do anything that would undermine the effort to get us all back to whatever our new normal is going to be.
All in all, I would suggest finding a different mode of travel where possible. It isn’t that my experience at airports was any better or worse than usual, but if you can skip the crowds you should do so. I have postponed most of my other upcoming trips; however, I do have one coming up soon for Portland, Ore. And although that state and city have done a particularly good job of controlling coronavirus, they are having other struggles right now. Wherever you may be going, please take good care of yourself and others. It is the best way to do your part in getting COVID-19 under control.
This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort started by the Solutions Journalism Network and funded by The Knight Foundation.