What it's like to fly 3,000 miles across the country in a pandemic

What it's like flying cross-country during a pandemic
What it's like flying cross-country during a pandemic

Airlines tend to see a spike in passengers starting Memorial Day weekend — even during a pandemic, it turns out: 348,673 people passed through security checkpoints at U.S. airports on Friday, May 22, more than three times the amount from a month ago, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Still, the number of travelers was down 88% from the same day last year.

I happened to be among the 350,000 airline passengers on Friday: I was flying from Los Angeles, where I currently live, back home to Charlotte, North Carolina, to be closer to family right now.

It's nearly impossible to socially distance if you're traveling by air, so you're better off avoiding flying if possible. If it's essential you travel, prepare ahead of time so you can do so as safely as possible.

Here's what my flying experience on Friday was like.

The morning of my flight I get an email from American Airlines reminding me that face coverings are required on board and may be required in the airports where my trip is beginning and ending. They're required at LAX, where I'm flying out of, but not Charlotte, my final destination. My flight is direct, so I don't have to worry about stopping in other airports.

The email also says that the airline is offering travel vouchers starting at $200 to switch flights, as ours is filling up. I pass on the deal. 

I put on my mask, pack hand sanitizer and wear my glasses to help prevent myself from touching my face. I also grab a pair of gloves, which I don't end up using. Some experts suggest using them — others warn that you can easily contaminate yourself with gloves if you don't use them properly. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that they're not necessary for the general public unless you're cleaning or caring for someone who is sick.

Like I would normally do, I use a rideshare service to get from my apartment to the airport. It's easy finding a driver and even easier getting to the airport. The 12.5-mile ride typically takes an hour minimum, thanks to LA traffic. But this morning, we get there in 18 minutes.

Both Uber and Lyft require that all passengers and drivers wear masks. We both have masks on for the duration of the ride.

The passenger drop-off area at LAX is uncharacteristically empty.

As is the check-in area before you go through security.

Some airlines have started rolling out touchless kiosks to print bag tags using a smartphone, although the one I use isn't. It reminds me again of the face covering policy.

Going through security is a breeze with no line.

There isn't a separate lane for TSA PreCheck, which I normally use, but with so few passengers going through security it doesn't make a difference. 

Last week, the TSA announced that screening procedures will be changing to limit contact between passengers and TSA agents. Passengers should expect more distance between each other at security checkpoints, which has already started to take effect at LAX.

Passengers will also have to place their boarding passes on scanners themselves, instead of handing them to TSA agents. That procedure hasn't yet been implemented today and I hand my boarding pass and ID to the agent for review. The agent is sitting behind a protective shield, though. He asks me to remove my mask when he checks my ID.

I normally allow two hours for commuting to the airport and getting through security. Today, I make it from my apartment to my gate in 45 minutes.

I'm nearly two hours early for my flight and pass the time walking through the terminal, which is, for the most part, desolate. Some coffee shops and Hudson News shops are open, but most bars and restaurants are closed. I have a bag of snacks I brought from home to avoid unnecessary contact in airport shops.

Signs and announcements over the speaker system remind you to maintain distance from other travelers, but I don't notice any physical markings to help indicate proper social distancing.

Here's a particularly empty gate.

I head back to my gate at boarding time and, surprisingly, it's packed. Planes have been flying emptier the past few months, but it appears mine will not be.

During the boarding process, we're reminded to remain six feet from our fellow passengers, but it's difficult to keep so many people apart in such a small space. Besides the fact that everyone has a face covering, boarding seems business as usual: I hand my boarding pass to the ticketing agent, who scans it and returns it back to me. There's no protective shield placed between the agent and passengers.

In hindsight, I should have downloaded the American Airlines app to have my boarding pass on my phone and use touchless boarding.

I'm one of the last to board, and the plane appears nearly full. I take my aisle seat and am inches from the passenger in the middle seat, who is inches from the passenger in the window seat. The row across from me is also full. 

Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendants, wearing masks and gloves, hand out paper bags with a water bottle and snack inside. They come back around a few times to collect trash, but contact is minimal. There are no beverage carts or drink refills.

I sleep during most of the five-hour journey. The few times I wake up, it feels like just another flight, with passengers walking through the cabin to use the bathroom. Most airlines are asking passengers to keep their masks on the entire flight, but the rule doesn't seem to be enforced. I remove mine only a handful of times to eat and drink.

When we land, we're asked to stand and exit one row at a time. Upon exiting, I head straight to the airport bathroom for a lengthy hand wash.

The Charlotte airport is noticeably busier than LAX.

Here's the baggage claim area.

I grab my bag and meet my dad outside. Our instinct is to embrace, but we keep our distance. The first thing I do when I'm home is shower and run my airplane clothes through the washing machine. For the next two weeks, as I self-isolate, I'll be with my family but apart: no hugs, shared couches or communal dinner plates — just a lot of sanitizing. 

Don't miss: The daily routine of a professional tennis player who wakes up at 7 a.m. and does 3 workouts a day in quarantine

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What is a pandemic?
What is a pandemic?