How Safe Is it to Fly? 7 Recent Passengers on What's Changed
Amanda Pullinger travels between New York and London once or twice a month, flies to Asia four times a year, and criss-crosses the Americas. As familiar as she is with air travel, she was stunned when she arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport at the end of April to fly home to the U.K.
“There was no one there,” says Pullinger, CEO of 100 Women in Finance, an international professional organization. “I was the only one checking in.”
That wasn’t the only unusual aspect of her trip from New York to London. It took 30 minutes instead of up to two hours to reach JFK from Midtown Manhattan. The first-class meal on Virgin Atlantic was a sandwich in a paper bag. Before boarding, she was questioned about whether she qualified as an “essential” traveler, so she wouldn’t be refused entry into the U.K.
The coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on travel worldwide. Globally, scheduled flights were down 64 percent in the last week of April compared to a year before, estimates flight data company OAG. Carriers have grounded some 17,000 jets, according to aircraft data firm Cirium.
Can you fly now? Yes, but very few people are on planes—and they're traveling largely to get home or help family member. They’re finding themselves in a Twilight Zone of abandoned airports and empty flights. Flying has gotten weird—and more stressful than ever.
“I slept for two days when I came home,” says Cate Kastriner, who flew to Florida to pick up her parents—her father is 89 and has health problems—and bring them home to Maryland. “My mom said, ‘It felt like you were secreting me out of the country.’”
Expect canceled and rerouted flights
It’s become routine for airlines to cancel or reschedule bookings, sometimes with little notice. Hana Pevny, owner/innkeeper of the Waldo Emerson Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine, normally reaches her home in Colorado by flying Portland-Chicago-Aspen. In April she discovered that her normal routes no longer existed.
“Traveling alone I wouldn’t mind two stops to Denver,” Penvy says, but bringing her diabetic alert dog makes connections much more difficult. She made a booking, the airline changed it, and she flew on a third reservation from Boston to Denver via Charlotte, N.C., then drove to Aspen in a rental car.
International journeys can be even more fraught. Author Kim Ghattas was planning to travel home to Beirut from Washington, D.C., at the end of March. A few days before her departure, it was announced that Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport would be shut down.
“I stayed put in D.C. and waited to see—perhaps I could get to London and wait,” since Lebanon’s national carrier flies there, Ghattas says. Her first flight to London was canceled; her travel agent was able to rebook her, but that flight was canceled, too.
“I was lucky I booked through a travel agent,” she says. “”I would have spent hours on the phone to the airline, trying to get the next flight and the next flight and the next flight.” She finally flew to London on April 1; she spent a week in solitude before boarding a repatriation flight to Beirut.
© Courtesy Emirates
An increased emphasis on protective gear
People who have flown recently say there are huge differences in safety precautions. Crew members on Ghattas’ London flight weren’t wearing protective gear; on her repatriation flight to Lebanon, flight attendants wore full hazmat suits. Passengers were asked to discard their masks and gloves and were given new ones; their temperatures were checked during the trip.
At the end of April, fashion executive Kristin Karabees flew with her daughter from New York to her parents’ home in Phoenix. At LaGuardia, she says, almost everyone wore a mask. “People were six feet apart,” she says. “You’ve never seen such a smooth boarding process.”
The situation was very different in Atlanta, where they changed planes. “It was packed,” Karabees says. “All the fast food places were open. People were cutting in front of us. I would say half the people didn’t have masks at all.”
But some passengers are going beyond basic PPE. George Zeng, CEO of flight deals site Moonfish, traveled from San Francisco to Boston a few weeks ago to help care for his wife’s parents. Zeng and his wife wore masks, gloves, and plastic ponchos to shield themselves from germs.
Lawyer Desiree Sumilang flew home from Los Angeles to Hong Kong in early April. “Every other row there’s people in full suits with face shields,” she says. “ I kind of knew to expect that, otherwise I’d be freaked out.”
Sumilang and her husband were flying with 3-year-old twins and an infant. They wrapped disposable sheets around their seats and wiped surfaces down with disinfectant. “We’re cleaning everything,” Sumilang says. “We’re yelling at our children, ‘Don’t touch anything!’”
Health screenings are part of the routine
The often-agonizing process of going through airport security is now painless, travelers say. When Cate Kastriner arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport with her teenage daughter, “there were 30 to 40 TSA agents and us,” she says. “It was so very, very weird.”
International transfers and arrivals are a different story. Travel blogger Philip Weiss was in Thailand when the pandemic broke out, and needed to return to Portland, Maine. He was able to get a flight to Dubai, where he could connect to London and then the U.S. But before boarding his flight in Dubai, he was required to undergo a blood test.
“As someone who hates needles, it was quite traumatic,” Weiss says. And despite the negative result for COVID-19 on his blood test, immigration officers in London grilled Weiss about his travel history. “Digital nomads beware, those hundreds of passport stamps that used to be for bragging rights on Instagram are now going to cost you hours to get through customs.”
Sumilang’s family arrived in Hong Kong at 5:30 a.m. and didn’t get home until 7 p.m. After going through immigration, they were taken to the nearby convention center for health screening. They were tested, waited for hours for results, and were sent home with tracking bracelets to make sure they adhered to a 14-day quarantine.
Kim Ghattas was tested in Lebanon and had to stay overnight in a hotel while awaiting results. She says that traveling while the world was at a standstill gave her some courage: “You have to keep on living.”