It’s been eight months since I’ve flown anywhere or even been in an airport. A lot has happened in eight months, and the pandemic is relentlessly marching along with no regard for whether we want to flip the switch back to normal again. I’m not sure it ever will be normal again, but whether we get there or not I had obligations that put me on a flight to Cleveland. What was commonplace less than a year ago was now unique, outlier stuff. And I felt compelled to note the changes.
TSA outnumbers passengers 20:1
That flight eight months ago coincidently departed from the same gate I was departing from on my flight to Cleveland. But instead of walking into a cue of people trying to bypass the regular TSA line and finding a line of our own, I walked straight to a lonely TSA agent who scanned my passport and asked me to take the mask down to verify my face matched the photo. By my count there were at least twenty TSA agents for every person going through screening.
Every row, not every seat
I boarded a plane that was being seated from back to front and found my way to my seat. This plane was small – two seats on either side of the row. Everyone had a window seat except for the couples flying together. From a social distancing perspective I was at least six feet from the person on the opposite window seat. But they were also seating every row, so the person in front of me and the person behind me were only three feet away. But masks were required, right?
The rule was pretty straightforward: wear your damned mask while you were on the plane. You couldn’t walk into the airport without the mask, let alone get on the plane. Simple right? Yet I was braced for the one flake who would take off their mask and scream about their rights. But thankfully this plane was full of functioning adults without delusions of grandeur. Everyone wore their mask the entire time. Until they didn’t.
Food and Beverages
The smell of food on the plane shortly after sitting made me question someone’s mask etiquette. I’m no expert on such things, but eating a chicken sandwich seems challenging while keeping a mask on the entire time. But it demonstrated the challenges of enforcement. Then the crew announced they would be coming through with snacks and beverages. No booze and no hot coffee or tea options, but water and soft drinks. Airline-sanctioned bending of the mask rule. And again I thought to myself, how exactly are we going to be responsible mask-wearing passengers while eating and drinking? I accepted the snack and water and stuffed them into my bag for after the flight. Mask stayed put.
First in line to take off?!!
As with the TSA line, there was literally no line of planes awaiting take-off. We taxied to the end of the runway and simply took off. Granted it was an afternoon flight, but for me that was a first at Logan International Airport. As we soared over the islands I spied a lonely sailboat cruising Boston Harbor, and wondered where they were going. They might have been looking up at the plane wondering who in the world is flying in a pandemic. Me, folks. The answer was me.
Exiting the plane
The routine in Cleveland was similar to boarding in Boston. Stay seated until the people in front of you stand up and exit. A few rebels stood up to grab bags from the overhead bins, but most of us just played along. Perspective is a beautiful thing. None of us wanted to dance with COVID-19. Walking out into the terminal, it felt different from Logan Airport. More people for sure. Cleveland was much more crowded than terminal C in Boston. Here too masks were required and social distancing applied. And more stores and restaurants open in Cleveland than in Boston. I suppose every place is different, and just as each country handles things differently, so too does every state. But overall people were showing respect for the pandemic here as well.
Real PPE Hurts
This flight was about two hours. Wearing a KN-95 mask instead of my cloth mask gave me even more respect for healthcare workers geared up for the pandemic for hours at a time. The elastic bands began to irritate the backs of my ears over time and I found myself pulling the elastics back off my skin for relief. If I were to do a cross-country trip I’d have to rig up a hat with buttons or pull the bands back with string to avoid this. But I wasn’t going to complain, I was wearing a mask to stay healthy and to keep other people healthy should I be infected but asymptomatic. It seemed a fair tradeoff.
Like Riding a Bicycle
Despite all the strangeness, travel came right back to me. Walking through airports, renting cars, and checking into hotels are all part of the deal when you travel for work. It took no time at all to feel I was back in the flow of things. Masks, heavy doses of hand sanitizer and soap and water, avoiding touching the face and maintaining social distance made it all clear that the routine was different even as it was the same. Some of these habits will remain with us long after we figure out this virus, and honestly some of these measures are welcome changes to the petri dish traditional travel placed you in. I wondered about the future of travel even as I welcomed a brief return to it.