Editors note: This story originally ran on March 4 and was updated on March 11 with most recent flights.
For once, there’s something other than just upgrades, delays and free onboard snacks on the minds of travelers. The novel coronavirus, now known as the COVID-19 disease, is front and center on the minds of travelers across the U.S. and well beyond.
We’ve all heard the news and recommendations from the experts. And as a result, many companies have grounded, or significantly reduced, business travel. Major events have been canceled or postponed. And everyday families are left weighing the pros and cons of pushing on with vacation plans, staying home or compromising on a more domestic destination with fewer crowds.
As for me — I’ve flown, both for work and pleasure, 10 times in the last month on trips that have taken me to both coasts in just the last week. This includes flying as recently as yesterday, March 10, as we finished up our family spring break travels. Leading up to every trip, my spouse, parents or friends will ask, “You still going?” So far, the answer was “yes.” Though each yes has gotten more tentative, more involved and more down to the wire than the one before, as the U.S. becomes more directly impacted by the spread of COVID-19.
With concerns high, hand sanitizer in short supply and future airline bookings presumably down so dramatically that all of the major U.S. airlines are offering change fee waivers on both forward bookings and even prior bookings, what’s it really like flying right now in the United States? Are airports becoming modern-day ghost towns?
Based on recent experiences from myself and other TPG staffers, I’d say flying in the U.S. today is both totally normal and also anything but depending on where you go and how hard you look.
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Monday morning and Dulles appeared quieter than normal. (Photo by Edward Pizzarello/PizzaInMotion.com)Face masks are a growing trend
Until last month, I very rarely saw passengers on domestic flights wearing face masks. But, things have changed.
On both of my flights last week to and from Houston to Orlando, I was seated next to someone wearing a face mask. This week, I was seated next to my face-mask-free kids, but saw more people walking around the airport with masks on than even the week prior. This may seem like a good idea, but that isn’t necessarily true if your goal is to keep others’ germs away from you. That said, masks can be a useful way to help contain your germs and decrease the odds that they spread to others.
Of note is that last week, on my outbound flight, my seatmate wore an N95 mask. However, he kept taking it off, putting it down on the seat and once even dropped it on the floor … before putting it back on his face. Eventually, he left it off for good. On the return flight, my seat neighbor wore a generic, blue surgical mask, not an N95 mask. He took the mask off to eat and drink, though otherwise wore it from takeoff to landing.
(Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)
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If I had to guess, I’d still say that less than 5% of people flying in the U.S. right now are utilizing a mask during their journey. However, that’s a noticeable increase over any other previous week that I’ve flown around the country.
Touch almost nothing
I use Clear to get through security faster (especially in the notoriously backed-up Orlando airport), but I’ve switched to using my iris scan over a fingerprint scan, as putting my finger on the exact same spot as everyone else doesn’t sound like the best idea at the moment.
It’s not just me — the Clear agent himself told me he doesn’t like touching the machine right now and uses an antibacterial solution each time he has to. (Clear is actually great about having the solution right next to the machines.)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Several of my recent flights were in first class (more on that in a minute), and some passengers around me either declined the included meal service entirely or asked for just a full can of soda and then nothing more. However, while a few people around me took that approach, many others — most others — appeared to still eat and drink as usual.
On all of my flights this week, the flight attendants didn’t allow travelers to select their own snacks from the basket but instead handled all the snack distribution themselves, typically (though not always) while wearing gloves.
Snack basket (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)Wipe it all down
Until a few weeks ago, if you boarded a flight in the U.S., busted out your Lysol disinfecting wipes and went to town scrubbing the whole thing down, you may have been the exception, not the norm. A few years ago, supermodel Naomi Campbell went a touch viral thanks to her onboard cleaning steps to avoid catching a virus. (Though, it’s always a pretty good idea to wipe out germs in your corner of the plane before settling in.)
But now, I saw more everyday travelers than ever wiping their seats down. I even got my kids in on the act since there’s really no other way to clean multiple seats quickly. TPG editors Zach Honig and Nick Ellis both flew this week, and both also reported spending more time than usual disinfecting their seats before settling in. TPG’s Benet Wilson said passengers coming back from Morocco went so far as to share some of her extra Clorox wipes with nearby passengers that were requesting some. That said, our unscientific sample size would report that while it is more common than before to wipe down your seat, it’s still far from the majority taking that step.
For its part, Alaska Airlines is supporting customer’s efforts to wipe down their seats but asks that the cleaning is limited to the armrests and tray tables as there is concern that commercially available cleaning wipes can deteriorate the top coat of the leather seats. The airline goes on to say that it is enhancing the cleaning of aircraft between flights, suspending hot towel service in first class, not refilling used cups and suspending onboard recycling for the time being.
Related: How airlines are adjusting inflight service due to coronavirus
Denver’s airport on March 10. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)Good news, your upgrade might clear
With many companies quickly and dramatically reducing or halting business travel, the elite business travelers who are usually sitting up front may increasingly be on the ground.
Again, I’m working with a small sample size, but as a mid-tier United Gold flyer, in the last few weeks, I’ve been upgraded on more flights than in the past year. This includes a weekday flight to New York’s LaGuardia, coming home from Orlando and my whole family was even upgraded last night coming home from Mammoth in California. On my flight home from Orlando last week, all upgrade-eligible travelers were cleared and the aircraft still went out with four empty first-class seats.
All of this is — unusual.
(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)
TPG’s Zach Honig reports his upgrade clearing on United between Newark and Los Angeles — on an upgraded aircraft that was changed to a 777-200ER. Clint Henderson, TPG’s Senior News Editor, reports his flight from New York’s JFK to San Francisco late last week also went out with two open first-class seats and many open economy seats.
And just this morning, TPG’s Richard Kerr was not only the only person in the Amex Centurion Lounge at 8:30 a.m. at LaGuardia, but was in one of only three occupied first-class seats on a flight home to Atlanta (out of 12 seats).
Hand sanitizer isn’t everywhere — yet
While we are seeing more hand sanitizer in some places, such as in the United Clubs, it isn’t around every turn in the airport quite yet. In fact, outside of at the Clear kiosk and in the airport lounges, I haven’t spotted many additional hand disinfecting stations … yet.
Things still look normal on the outside — mostly
As of today, life inside the major domestic airports I’ve recently transited looks mostly normal. (Unless of course you run across Naomi Campbell in her new hazmat suit.) But, there are some outward changes you can spot if you look hard enough, but other than seeing a few more face masks than the historic norm, it’s still easy to miss the undercurrent of COVID-19 that is rocking the travel industry as you criss-cross the country’s airports.
The food courts still have lines, boarding areas are often far from empty, but at least in some locations, lounges are less brisk that normal.
Orlando airport’s food court on March 3, 2020. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
As is evident from the empty Centurion Lounge, things are starting to change, especially at airports that aren’t currently experiencing a spring break influx as those travelers, anecdotally, seem less likely to have changed their plans than business travelers.
Empty lounge at 8:30 a.m. on a weekday. (Richard Kerr/The Points Guy)
But, even if things look normal on the outside, if you were to peer into the minds of travelers, you’d likely find some conflicted thoughts. Speaking only for myself, I know I have conflicted thoughts about continuing to knowingly put myself or my family in crowds of people at the airport and on the plane when there is so much we don’t know about COVID-19. I may look like I always did going through the airport (though with more of my own water, wipes and hand sanitizer at the ready), but my thoughts while going through the motions are anything but normal.
Also factor in that while U.S. airlines are waiving fees for changes to new bookings, those rules just recently took effect for those with existing bookings. And since trip insurance largely won’t cover cancellations due to coronavirus concerns (unless you have a costly cancel for any reason policy), there may be some travelers pushing forward simply because they would have been on the hook for many expenses if they canceled.
As for me — I’m now home with my next several planned business trips all canceled for coronavirus-related reasons. I’m still making future travel plans and hope to not stay grounded any longer than necessary, but until we know a little more about the status here in the U.S., tomorrow’s airport situation will likely be without my family present.
Additional resources for traveling during the coronavirus outbreak:
How coronavirus is impacting airline award availability How coronavirus has left the travel industry reeling Airlines scale back inflight offerings due to coronavirus How to ward off coronavirus in your hotel room Guide to traveling during the coronavirus outbreak Extreme measures cruise lines are taking during coronavirus #News #Health #S-travel #Airlines #Airports