For the first time in 9 months, I traveled last week. Not just to a neighboring town or state, but via commercial airline, halfway across the country. It wasn’t just for fun and pleasure, but out of necessity due to a death in the family. I felt pretty confident that I could take necessary precautions and it was worth the risk. Besides, I figured, the airports and flights would likely be fairly empty – given, you know, the rampant pandemic that is still spiking.
Wrong. I was, well, shocked by how “peopley” it was. The connecting airports were just as busy as I used to see them when I was traveling more often for work. I kept thinking, “all of these people can not be either essential workers or in crisis. WTF?” Let me pause here and apologize if anything I say here offends any of you. If you are choosing to travel for pleasure right now, that is your right. But I just don’t get it. Over 16 million US cases of Covid, 350,000 resulting deaths. I heard an estimate on the news the other night that 1 in 16 Americans will contract the illness. I personally know a few who have had it. Businesses are going back into shut-down mode. Gatherings of people are discouraged, travel should not be happening unless truly necessary. And yet I saw many families traveling together, couples, and young adults – all seemingly traveling like the good ol’ days, albeit wearing masks.
What I DO totally understand is the rampant frustration and weariness of not being able to be with family and friends. I get it that we just celebrated the holidays, and normally holidays mean being with family. It is achingly painful to be away from each other, and not be able to hug, do all the fun activities we have done in the past. I understand the overwhelming urge to say “screw it, I’m going” and hop in the car or bus or plane and go see people, or have a “real” vacation somewhere. But guess what. It is scary out there. Really scary. We aren’t at the end of this yet. And as much as we may hate it, zooming digitally is far safer than zooming via public transportation to a gathering.
I can’t speak for any other airlines besides the one I used, but they seem to be trying. The “please be safe” guideline announcements throughout the airport run continuously. Everything seems to be as clean as it can be given the amount of people. Onboard the planes, certain adjustments have been made, for example when boarding, each traveler is handed a plastic bag containing a small bottle of water, a pack of cookies and a sanitizing wipe. There are no other beverage or food services offered during the flight. Everyone must be masked in the airport and on the plane. The flight attendants prowl the aisles throughout the flight to pick up trash, so nothing gets shoved into the seat pockets or left behind. However, at least with American Airlines, and at least when I was onboard, the flights are totally full, with no spare seats or added space between passengers. We were squashed in like a bunch of germophobic sardines.
I am generally a very social person. But for this trip, I became as close to a recluse as possible. I got my negative test before leaving home. I double-masked, wore my glasses in a hope to shield my eyes, stayed as far away from other humans in the airport as possible. I wore disposable gloves when I got on the plane until I had wiped my area down with a sanitizing wipe, then touched only my book and my water bottle. I brought my own reusable straw for any beverages I purchased. I changed masks for each flight. I was able to wear an N95-level mask for the return flight home. (P.S., I am once again in awe of medical professionals who wear those constantly – ye gads they are uncomfortable. My nose is still sore.) I had with me, and used, two different hand sanitizers. When I reached my destinations, both going and coming home, I left my shoes outside until I could use sanitizing spray on them, and immediately showered and washed my clothes. Paranoid? Maybe, but I don’t really think so. The health of my family, both at home and who I was visiting (not to mention my own) was worth adopting OCD tendencies. Now that I’m home, I’m limiting any outings, and working from home until my post-travel Covid test comes back with negative results (fingers crossed and knocking on wood).
Over the past few years, air travel has become less and less enjoyable. Now there are no redeeming qualities other than the fact that it is faster than driving – although no matter how you slice it, you still spend a full day in transit.
As I observed the other travelers, I was of course relieved that everyone wore a mask. They had to, or else they would not be allowed in the airport or on the plane – or at least would be barred from future flights. Other than that, however, I really didn’t notice much in the way of different behaviors. I’m sure there were others like me who were embracing their inner Sheldon tendencies, but I didn’t see them. Not a lot of distance between folks waiting in lines, no wiping down of surfaces, plenty of people sitting at food court tables eating, hanging out waiting in fairly crowded areas… I did see a few face shields being worn, so bravo to those folks. I wondered if they were all just being braver than I, or were risk takers, or, to my point above, just couldn’t stand it anymore and “Covid be Damned”?
In the past couple of days, I’ve heard from friends who are either sick or have family members who have contracted the virus – simply by going about their regular lives even when they took precautions. I feel blessed and thankful that I am showing no symptoms and am hopefully assuming I will get a good report in a few days. Yet even when I do, I don’t expect to change my current anti-social methods any time soon. I wonder about the hundreds of people I saw during my travels, and worry about how many of them may sadly be added to those frightening numbers. I guess only time will tell.
Interestingly, I did see several military personnel traveling – those are folks I’d put on the list of “Essentials who don’t really have a choice”, and I pray they all remain safe. The one high point I did observe during my experience was when a gentleman in First Class gave up his seat to an Army soldier who had a seat in the back of the plane. Upon witnessing the exchange, we all gave him a round of applause.
After all, in the scariest and darkest hours, it is the bright and hopeful moments we cling to and appreciate the most.
Please stay safe, so we can look forward to better and brighter journeys in our future.