Traveling during the pandemic, and whether or not you should consider it, has become a polarizing issue. On one end of the argument, are the scientists attempting to curb the spread; on the other end are the professionals whose livelihoods depend on people traveling. This dichotomy is strikingly pervasive throughout most industries in the country these days.
Unfortunately, after over four months under the same roof, my wife needed to return to Nashville from the Bay Area in July. This provided us with a glimpse into the current conditions of air travel and ground transportation; all photo credits to her.
The earliest sign of change that we experienced was the lack of nonstop tickets. In fact, there were zero nonstop flights between the Bay Area (SFO, OAK, SJC) and Nashville (BNA) available. The quickest itinerary we could find was from Alaska Airlines with a connecting flight via their partner American Airlines in Chicago (ORD); a nine hour journey start to finish.
While typical practice is for TSA to ask you to briefly lift your face covering when entering security, my wife’s use of CLEAR allowed her to keep her face covering on at all times since CLEAR uses fingerprints and eye-scanning to verify your identity. This was the most unexpected benefit of the day.
San Francisco (SFO)
SFO was noticeably empty compared to its usual hustle and bustle. Seating in the gate areas was marked with social distance markers, but was not clearly labeled. While best practice currently stipulates clear language (“Sit here;” “Stand here;” “Do not sit here,” etc.), SFO opted for stickers with simple messages, such as “Stay Healthy,” with left and right carrot brackets that seemed to indicate travelers should sit on the far end of each row. Absent were instructions on how families or travelers with young children should seat themselves.
Alaska Airlines’ seats were visibly clean upon entry. In addition, they blocked the middle seats throughout the jet. This approach is one being taken by very few airlines, Delta and Southwest included, where financial opportunity is sacrificed in order to help passengers feel safer inflight. It certainly made a positive difference for my wife. As expected, no food or drinks were offered beyond a water bottle and bag of snack mix. Luckily, my wife isn’t a drinker, so she wasn’t impacted by the realization that A) not being permitted to consume your own alcohol on flights and B) airlines not selling or serving alcohol on flights means everyone behind first class flies dry. First class customers are being offered cans of beer.
After arriving at ORD, gone were the signage on individual seats promoting social distancing. Instead, larger, more holistic instructions were present throughout the terminal with adhesive banners affixed to the pillars. Options for dining were extremely limited during this layover, with a majority of venues closed; representative of the lower foot traffic in recent months.
Unlike Alaska, Delta and Southwest, American Airlines is in the same camp with competitor airlines who have not taken the same interest in passenger safety. Rather than block adjacent seats to encourage social distancing, these airlines simply offer flight changes to customers on full flights. Unsurprisingly, they do not offer in-flight food or drink service, however they also cite that their compliance with social distancing prevents them from providing the individual water or snack mix that Alaska provided. My wife was seated in a window seat, and able to stay put for the short flight south, but the sense of comfort from her first flight was noticeably missing on her second.
In a comical fashion, the farther south she got, the less signage and COVID-19 prevention was present. At BNA, the only guidance offered was the definition of a social distance, placed on a small freestanding sign in the corner of the terminal.
For the most part, the use of face coverings was pervasive throughout all airports and aircrafts. In addition, airlines are all performing additional cleanings between flights, and custodial contracts in the airports are performing services aimed at touchpoints such as door handles and faucets.
We look forward to a more typical travel future. Until then, stay safe and take care of yourself.