About a month ago, I wrote about our experience roadtripping through several states during COVID-19. We recently returned from our last trip of the year to Austin, Texas, and I’d like to share our experience flying there and back. Admittedly, it was a source of much stress for me. Let’s dive in.
Selecting our flights
I typically have only one concern when booking flights: cost. I will book the cheapest flight regardless of airline, arrival/departure time, airport, etc. We’re not very particular when it comes to flying, and prefer to save our dollars for food and experiences. We live in easy driving distance to three airports: Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. We have flown from all of them during 50 in 5 so far, on a couple of different airlines.
For this trip, I had additional concerns due to the Coronavirus. Ideally, we would have flown from Greensboro directly to Austin, but there weren’t any direct flights. It was important for me to depart from Greensboro because it is tiny. I knew we’d be able to arrive and get through security with virtually nobody around us… all in under 10 minutes. I didn’t like the idea of leaving from a larger airport and being rushed through security in close proximity to other travelers.
Our flights were booked on American Airlines with a very short (1 hour) layover in Charlotte.
Adjusting our seats
What a saga this was! As our trip drew closer, things worsened with COVID-19, with new daily cases spiking all over the United States. I was nervous about traveling, solely because of flying.
When I purchased our flights, I did not pay to select seats. We almost always end up beside each other, sometimes with a neighbor. A few days before we left, it struck me that we really did not want a neighbor for this trip. At the time of our flights, American was not leaving middle seats open or limiting flight capacity. I begrudgingly paid the fee to select seats for our four flight segments. I booked a window and an aisle, gambling that nobody would choose a middle seat. And I hoped that American’s automated system would fill windows and aisles before placing someone in the middle.
48 hours before our trip we learned that our first flight was overbooked and they asked for volunteers to take a later flight. Arriving later didn’t jive with our schedule, so I disregarded the email. The morning before the trip, a new email arrived with options to take an earlier flight. We jumped at the opportunity. Instead of flying the next morning, we flew later that evening.
For every flight—all four segments—a stranger was placed in the row with us. I could see this in the seating chart ahead of time. So, for every flight I swiftly paid (again) to move us to different seats. The upside is that we ended up in Main Cabin Extra seats a few times, and we enjoyed how spacious they were! The downside is that it was expensive, and ultimately cost around $180 to change seats so many times. It was worth it for my peace of mind and our safety, but was a bummer to see on the credit card statement. I wish American was taking greater precautions with seat assignments and flight capacity.
Security and Terminals
Our experience with security at both GSO and AUS was pretty painless, for which I am very grateful. However, the rules were different at each airport.
In Greensboro, nobody was in line for security. They told us to keep shoes/jackets/belts on and keep electronics in our bags. I checked the TSA guidelines for hand sanitizer in advance, but ours was confiscated. 😒 They wouldn’t tell us why it was confiscated, which was frustrating, but I think it was because it was very liquid-y (as opposed to the kind that’s more of a gel substance).
Just like the security line, our terminal at GSO wasn’t busy. We were able to sit comfortably away from others at our gate and didn’t observe anyone breaking mask rules. There were plenty of hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere, along with safety signage. I observed this at all three airports, in fact.
When we flew home from Austin, we waited for security in a short line that was nicely distanced. Here, we had to follow the normal security measures of removing shoes/jackets/belts and taking electronics out of our bags. In both airports, I noticed that the plastic bins for your items were not being wiped down between use.
At our gate in AUS, we grabbed seats away from other travelers and didn’t interact with anyone. We purchased a water bottle, but didn’t go to any other vendors while we waited for our flight.
The CLT airport was insanely busy during both of our layovers. We walked the concourse shoulder-to-shoulder with a hoard of travelers, and there wasn’t a lot of room to sit distanced at the gate. I observed plenty of folks following mask rules, but plenty who were not. I was grateful that a) we did not fly out of CLT and b) our layovers were brief and we only spent about 20 minutes at the gate before boarding our next flight.
I can only comment on our experience flying during COVID-19 with one airline: American Airlines. Overall, I felt like they did an okay job with safety, but there was room for improvement. Here’s a link to their Clean Commitment, if you are interested.
Our first flight from GSO to CLT was on a tiny plane that required us to board on the tarmac. It arrived and offloaded passengers, then 15 minutes later began boarding for our flight. I don’t know American’s exact cleaning measures, but it didn’t feel like enough time to have done much of anything before welcoming new passengers. From our seats at the gate, we could see the exterior of the plane and noted that in the short 15 minutes, nobody wiped down the handrails that virtually every passenger used to descend/ascend the steps to the plane. This felt like a major oversight to me and made me wary about cleanliness all around. As we boarded, we received a packaged sanitizing wipe and wasted no time wiping down everything around our seats.
Food and beverage services were discontinued on all flights, so as we boarded our longer flight from CLT to AUS we received individual snack packs with a small bottle of water, Biscoff cookies, and another sanitizing wipe. This plane smelled clean, and I could see fresh marks where things had been wipe down.
Some travelers were carefully following mask guidelines, but others were not. Flight attendants would repeatedly ask for masks to be pulled up above noses, but as soon as they left, mask would be pulled back down. Aside from just telling passengers to pull masks up, the flight attendants didn’t actually have any agency to enforce the rules. You could remove your mask to eat and drink, and we observed a few folks with masks pulled down and a drink in their hand. If the flight attendant approached, they’d take a sip of the drink and then continue holding it just to avoid the mask. 🙄
The flight attendants also asked to simplify the deplaning process—with one row standing and departing at a time—to help with distancing. This was not followed (to a laughable extent) and again, flight attendants did not enforce it in any way.
Though we did all that we could to be safe, safety didn’t seem to be a priority for many other travelers and the airline’s attention to and enforcement of safety guidelines were questionable to me. We aren’t due to fly again until May 2021, and I’m curious to see how things will evolve before then. I feel more comfortable traveling by car for the time being. I’ll also note that the day after we flew home, Brandon and I both had COVID tests and received negative results a few days later.
Anna Kloots, a writer and creator whose work I enjoy recently flew from Paris to Los Angeles, and her experience is worth reading if you’re interested in another perspective.