After several weeks of emotional calls home, I made the difficult decision to board an airplane in late May in the midst of a global pandemic to visit my grandfather who is gracefully but steadily nearing the end of his life.
I spent hours researching the various ways to travel more than 1,000 miles from Denver to my hometown in central Illinois.
Should I make the 15-hour drive? How often would I have to stop for gas or food? How many touch points would that entail? If I do fly, what will the airport terminals be like? Will I get my own row on the plane?
Many journalists — and other essential workers — have still been getting on airplanes. People all over the country are still flying if they have to. A viral social media post from a cardiologist in early May showed a packed United Airlines plane. But this wasn’t a work trip. This was a trip that came about trying to determine if my grandpa would die before I could make it home. Airlines are getting better at adapting to coronavirus precautions, but the CDC is still recommending not flying unless necessary.
The number of travelers passing through TSA checkpoints has been steadily rising from its unprecedented low of 87,534 on April 14, compared with 2.2 million the year before, to 441,255 on June 7. Airlines are preparing for summer travel, although they don’t expect to get back to 2019 levels anytime soon.
In the end, flying turned out to be the option for me and seemed to offer the fewest chances of exposure. After all, the gas pumps, door handles or bathroom faucets I would encounter somewhere in rural Missouri weren’t federally regulated like an international airport would be.
Frontier Airlines was the most affordable option at roughly $150 each way, which felt steep compared to the $26 ticket I booked but never used three weeks prior when my grandpa had given us a scare. But having the ability to choose my seat gave me some sense of control of my surroundings as I prepared to interact with strangers for the first time in three months.
All of the reading I had done prior suggested sitting near the front of the plane and in a window seat if possible. Both allow for less interaction as people go up and down the aisle during boarding and while you’re in the air. I selected a seat behind the emergency exit row – since those cost more I hoped they would be less appealing – and next to the window.
Frontier’s current policy requires everyone to wear a mask throughout the entire flight, and you must agree that neither you nor anyone in your household has had a fever in the last week. I also watched the video of them disinfecting their aircraft numerous times to see what surfaces were included. (Sometime in the near future they plan to take temperatures as passengers board the plane, but that wasn’t the case just yet.) This, along with my hand sanitizer, masks and obsessive hand washing, gave me the confidence that I would be able to remain safe on the two and a half hour flight.
Here’s what I saw from Denver to Chicago on May 18 and from Indianapolis to Denver on May 22.
Depart for airport, 6:30 am.
I always wondered why people wore masks in their car and thought it was silly. But was happy to see my Lyft driver sporting a yellow bandana around his nose and mouth. There were a surprising number of cars on the road. We passed a woman in navy blue scrubs, a man with a fire dept sticker on his red pickup truck, construction workers with their highlighter yellow vests in the back window; essential workers indeed.
Arrive at DEN, 6:58 a.m.
There are signs at every entrance that masks are required through the airport. Only one security check point is open and all travelers are funneled through that check point. Three TSA agents are crowded around one computer all wearing PPE. One comments on how the back of her ears hurt from the mask. Most people maintain social distancing without being told. The line for the only coffee shop in the terminal seems to be the one exception. All the other shops and restaurants are closed.
Seated by 7:35 a.m.
The plane feels more full than I would like but seems adequately spaced. My seating strategy seems to have worked. Those seated with three in a row are allowed to disperse to the back of the plane which is mostly empty. Suddenly no one cares if my backpack is completely under the seat in front of me. Flight attendants keep touching/adjusting their masks. The young white man in front of me is checking the value of his stock.
A flight attendant chats with a fellow flight attendant seated in the emergency exit row.
“We’re only doing turns, no layovers,” she said. “It’s a whole different world these days, but sleeping in your own bed every night is a nice change.”
Arrive at ORD 10:48 a.m.
O’Hare is a bit of a ghost town upon landing. It is as if our flight was the only source of human activity. Our flight is funneled through terminal 5, which is primarily used just for international airlines. Since I didn’t check a bag, I immediately look for the signage pointing to ground transport. An older man wearing a mask and his Ohare windbreaker is directing people outside. I ask him where we go for ground transport and he says “right out here, tell them Terminal 5 arrivals.” As someone who previously took the CTA back into the city after arriving in Chicago, this feels strange to me but could be standard procedure for Terminal 5, where I don’t think I have ever been before.
After my trip, I spent several days with my family, wearing my mask and staying outside as much as possible. Grandpa was in good spirits, all things considered. My return flight was out of Indianapolis, since that airport is closer to my hometown and had times that worked for family members to drop me off.
Arrive at IND 6:45 p.m.
It’s hard not to notice the increase in cars on the road once we cross over into Indiana. In the departures terminal there are only three cars. It isn’t until I walk through the doors I realize masks are not required at public places in Indiana, including the airport. There are regular lines at Frontier check-in with 15-20 people congregating in the lobby.
Security takes maybe five minutes. The man at TSA who shouts about putting electronics in their own bin keeps touching his face and is not wearing a mask. Eventually he puts on one that had no straps and is just a sheet he held across the bridge of his nose with his hand.
Sitting in the terminal by 7:15 p.m.
Strangers not wearing masks are talking about where in Colorado they’re going. Five 20 something’s chat in the closed seating area of Harry & Izzy’s.
“This is horseshit. Nothing’s open” says the guy in a black T-shirt and jeans. He and his friend sit and talk with two women at an adjacent table. They all scratch off lotto tickets. The plane we are about to use deboards. At least 50 percent of people take their masks off as soon as they are out of the tunnel. Massive groups of people are walking by together. A teenage girl wears her local GOP apparel.
A Frontier employee comes on the intercom and explains we will be boarding the plane from back to front and that masks are required.
“You do have to wear a mask to board the flight and you do have to wear a mask in the Denver airport.” she sighs. “It is mandatory, I think anywhere in Denver. So just be sure to check that.”
You can hear the muttering of disapproval as she speaks.
“It’s not like it does anything anyway?” a young woman says. “What are they going to do, kick me off the plane?”
The Frontier employee continues her announcement.
“If you do not have a mask I need you to come see me, because you may not be able to board the flight today. Again, we are boarding by rows, back to front, and stay in your seats until I call your row. When you come up try to stand six feet apart.”
As I sit there wondering if Frontier is providing masks for passengers, her voice comes across the speaker again as four people stand in front of her desk.
“Would anyone happen to have an extra mask that someone could use today? If you do could you please bring it up here we’d so so appreciate it.”
A woman gives away a few extra masks and we board our flight a few minutes later. I wait until the last possible second, hoping there wouldn’t be a bottleneck of people in the tunnel. My seating strategy has worked again. There are two people in the emergency exit row in front of me and my middle seat is empty. Back to Denver.
Back in Denver, I spoke with Alyssa Morlacci, a digital editor for a magazine in Los Angeles who flew to Dallas for personal reasons during the pandemic. She described her flight experience on American Airlines as less than ideal once she got through the terminal.
“It wasn’t until I started boarding the flight that I felt a little unsafe because no one was social distancing in the tunnel. I figured that because I didn’t pay for my seat that I mostly likely got a middle seat but I thought I would be able to get on and move seats and that was not the case at all.”
Morlacci said she was in the middle seat for both her flights, with passengers on each side of her. Despite wiping down the seat and wearing her mask, Morlacci said she was hyper aware of the smallest thing because it increases the risk of contracting the virus.
“Every cough, every brush if someone’s arm or leg, I just felt hyper alert. We even had one of those big planes with like nine seats in each row and it was still packed.”
During the same time frame, Morlacci’s boyfriend flew from Los Angeles to Miami for family reasons and had a much different experience on Southwest Airlines.
“He didn’t have any complaints really. They were able to have no people sitting in the middle seat so he had a pretty good experience. Being able to have that few feet of extra space makes all the difference.”
In hindsight, she doesn’t regret her trip to Dallas, but says it certainly could have been different had she done a bit more research beforehand.
“I don’t think right now you can operate on the mindset that I normally do about cheap flights and best times, but rather look into which seating policies and airlines you are comfortable with.”
Kayli Plotner is a digital strategist at The Denver Post and has worked for the Chicago Tribune and Rockford Register Star. She is an adjunct professor at Columbia College and previously taught at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. You can follow her on Twitter @kayplot.