I have had many weird flights, but none has been stranger than my first pandemic-era flight.
Maybe you thought air travel was already as grim as it could get. Yeah, well. It now is a matter of far fewer people, more masks, more disinfectant, less food and drink and less talk.
“We do a lot less interacting with people,” a flight attendant told me, requesting anonymity because her regional airline had not authorized her to speak. When an attendant walks down the aisle now, she said, “people pretend to fall asleep because they don’t want to interact with you.”
There’s no telling how many of these changes will endure. Some of them may become permanent, redefining the flight experience, just as wide-bodied jets and deregulation did in the 1970s and beefed-up security did after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Certainly, the whole exercise — the airport, the TSA screening, the boarding, the prospect of using an in-flight bathroom — is a more somber, perplexing ritual now.
My first pandemic flight: Southwest Airlines 1623, Burbank, Calif., to Las Vegas, June 3, 143 seats.
Approaching the TSA gates, I counted just two passengers ahead of me, among nine agents.
“OK, sir, go ahead and lower your mask,” one of them said, needing to compare my full face with my driver’s license.
Beyond security, about one in four travelers in the terminal pulled their masks down or off. But when we started to head up the ramp, all the crew and passengers had masked up, though some wore them at half-staff, exposing their noses while covering their mouths.
On the flight, which carried 92 passengers, every middle seat was open, but all others were occupied. Not a single visible smile, just 92 pairs of eyes, looking out for trouble. And ears listening for coughs.
Delivering the safety spiel, the flight attendant paused to say that in an emergency, passengers should first remove their pandemic masks, then don their oxygen masks.
In the Las Vegas terminal, probably fewer than half of the shops and eateries were open. At baggage claim, a public service announcement said: “Don’t roll the dice: Stay 6 feet apart.”
This is where I found the flight attendant from the regional airline who told me flying now “is just a lot less personable.” On one flight, she said, she had just a single passenger.
But her job still involves “jump-seat therapy — people who just need to come talk to you about their problems.” And now, she said, the anxiety often seems more amplified. Recalling her recent interactions with passengers, “someone was in chemotherapy and going to the doctor.” Another was “picking up their children’s remains.”
Before you pass judgment on anyone flying during a pandemic, she said, remember that “you don’t know the reasons.” And if you don’t feel comfortable boarding a plane and you need to be somewhere?
“Maybe rent a car. Don’t give yourself the anxiety.”
Two days later, when I made the return journey to Burbank, the Las Vegas airport already felt different. The slot machines had come back to life (though every other one was turned off for social distancing). Several more stores and eateries were open, though far from all.
And there were a lot more people. The TSA, which counts passengers processed every day, reports that on June 3, the day of my first flight, 304,436 travelers passed through TSA stations nationwide, down from 2.37 million on the same day a year before.
By June 5 the number of passengers had grown to 419,675 travelers. In the security line this time, there were about 30 people with me.
At the gates, people grabbed seats, built little forts around themselves with their luggage and settled in with their phones. Southwest had put big dots down on the floor to help passengers keep 6 feet of distance between them while standing in line, and most complied.
What seemed startling two days before had already begun to feel like a new routine. Just as a man in a bandanna striding into a bank might have terrified you four months ago, the sight of a barefaced stranger on a 737 might do the trick now.
These days, I’m going to be worrying less about turbulence and more about coughs and sneezes. And it’s clear that other people are, too.