What it’s like flying across the US right now


(CNN) — After months of lonely isolation in my one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, I finally decided to bite the bullet and fly to Northern California on Saturday — using the utmost precautions with a pre-assembled Covid-19 kit: mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes and a straw.

Three days before my Saturday morning Delta flight from New York JFK to San Francisco International on Saturday, June 27 (the only nonstop between those two cities Delta Air Lines is operating currently), I received a text. “To ensure everyone’s safety on your upcoming Delta flight, all customers will be required to wear a mask, starting at check-in. delta.com/facemasks.”

I received two more emails and another safety reminder before boarding. As far as flying during a pandemic goes, they were really going the extra mile to make sure I knew that this was not going to be like any other flight.

I hadn’t really considered flying at all until Delta (and other airlines) cracked down on mask-wearing. And when Delta confirmed that they wouldn’t sell middle seats, I figured I could do this thing.

Empty gates, few planes, unused equipment: Welcome to the pandemic airport.

Empty gates, few planes, unused equipment: Welcome to the pandemic airport.

Brekke Fletcher/CNN

Still, I felt unsure of whether I should do it. New York City had so many cases, and despite the fact that I’d taken every precaution to protect myself and others, and been tested (negative) despite having been exposed, I still felt that banking on other passengers being as concerned and careful as I have been and continue to be was a bad bet.

The number of things one can control with air travel hovers around the zero mark regardless of this global pandemic, so I felt that if the airlines were taking this measure for our safety, I could fly with a little less anxiety.

Good day, sunshine

But still when my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m., I thought, maybe I should skip it. The airlines have been great in offering unprecedented flexibility in terms of changing plans without penalties (though not so much with the refunds), and I’m sitting on a lot of unused plane tickets from the before times when I had travel plans.

I ordered my Uber (and this was my fourth time using the service during the pandemic), and the young driver was not masked, nor was there any discussion about masks. The previous rides I’d taken were like hazmat cars with plastic partitions and signs about keeping your mask on and the windows open and a vat of hand sanitizer duct taped to the back of the center console.

Off to an auspicious start, we got the to the airport in under 25 minutes — I kept my masked face pointed out the open window like a bleary-eyed pit bull.

Welcome back

The JFK Terminal 4 airport drop-off area, usually rife with taxis and town cars, was a ghost town. I think I saw a tumbleweed, which I followed metaphorically into the empty check-in area.

Inside JFK Terminal 4 after passing through the nearly-empty security checkpoint on June 27, 2020.

Inside JFK Terminal 4 after passing through the nearly-empty security checkpoint on June 27, 2020.

Brekke Fletcher/CNN

I proceeded to the bag drop, and there were only four other travelers being helped. The desk agent asked if I was going to LA, San Francisco or Atlanta, because those were the only three flights departing at that hour.

I went through Clear security because, why not, I paid for it, but there were only two or three people moving through the queues. It felt like the world’s largest private jet terminal — or what I imagine that might feel like because I’ve never flown private.

The tumbleweed kept leading me through the empty terminal, a long walk to gate B37, where just in February I had passed swarms of folks, getting last-minute supplies at Kiehl’s, cleaning out the Duty Free stock of Absolut, stocking up at Hudson News, lining up for Shake Shack. But other than the empty Hudson News and the essential Peets Coffee & Tea, not much was open.

Et tu, Shake Shack? Closed stores, shuttered restaurants in a sparsely populated Terminal 4 at JFK.

Et tu, Shake Shack? Closed stores, shuttered restaurants in a sparsely populated Terminal 4 at JFK.

Brekke Fletcher/CNN

I saw few humans. Walking along felt like a post-apocalyptic movie about a ragtag group of survivors living in an abandoned airport terminal, surviving on a diet of rationed Smart Water, self-help books and Pringles. But at least there was plenty of hand sanitizer.

I arrived at the gate right at boarding time, and somehow it was already empty. Was I really the last person to board an 8 a.m. flight at 7:20? It seemed so. I had planned on getting on last anyway so it was a win, albeit a weird one.

A solitary journey ends in a crowded jet way, Gate 37 at JFK Terminal 4.

A solitary journey ends in a crowded jet way, Gate 37 at JFK Terminal 4.

Brekke Fletcher/CNN

Welcome aboard — with caveats

Once I went through the gate and winded down towards the plane, I finally saw a line of about 15 people waiting to board. All were masked as far as I could deduce using backs of heads as a reference, but no one was anywhere near six feet apart. Another great reason to bring up the rear because that’s the only way you can control keeping away from others.

The flight attendant, masked and gloved and tidy, smiled with his eyes as he handed me a tiny Purell packet. Looking down the aisle of the 757-200 (and peaking into the 16-seat business class cabin), I could not see anyone setting next to anyone. The middle seats were empty as promised, and the rest of the cabin was basically full.

Even the lighting on the plane was moody.

Even the lighting on the plane was moody.

Brekke Fletcher/CNN

I always use the aisle because I like to get up and walk around a lot during six-hour flights, and I’m a major water drinker. I tried to keep my liquid intake to a minimum, though, as I wanted to minimize lavatory visits.

When I got to 23C the woman in 23A was in deep cleansing mode, reminding me of Naomi Campbell’s pre-flight ritual (shared this time last year, well before Covid-19), which is very much in line with my own airplane seat cleansing regime.

Cleanliness is king

She looked at me suspiciously. I knew she was wondering if I was, well, a clean person. So, as I got settled, I broke out my coronavirus kit with the anti-viral wipes and went to town on every touch point in my vicinity. I saw her smile (I think) — she made eye contact and her cheeks seemed raised — as I wrapped up my used wipes and tossed them, along with my used gloves, into a plastic baggie that I placed under my seat, followed by a rigorous application of my newly-procured Aesop hand sanitizer. Yes, I spent $10 on hand sanitizer, because I’m worth it.

I snapped a few pictures, but nothing really could communicate the silence. It was pin-drop silent, and everyone who had a window seat seemed to decide that despite it being MORNING on a beautiful SUNNY day, we all needed to fly in a tomb.

It felt solemn, dare I say, funereal on that 757-200. In the dark, no one speaking above a whisper if at all, it was as if I had noise-canceling headphones on.

The author's selfie aboard a nonstop Delta flight from New York City to San Francisco.

The author’s selfie aboard a nonstop Delta flight from New York City to San Francisco.

Brekke Fletcher/CNN

All of the crew announcements before takeoff took on a tone of resilience and resolve: Wear a mask, keep your distance, if you need to eat or drink, do it quickly and get that mask back on. Don’t hover around the lavatory, don’t hover, do your best to keep your distance, understanding it is impossible to keep six feet apart inside a cramped tube going 580 miles-per-hour at 38,000 feet. There will be no food or beverage service, but we will pass around snack bags.

And we’re off

We were, unsurprisingly, number one for takeoff. All I could hear was the roar of the engines. Everyone faced forward, some were watching movies, some were reading, some were sleeping. It could have been the middle of the night for all I knew with those shades drawn and the lack of human voices or babies and children squealing.

Once the WiFi turned on after ascending above 10,000 feet, I started working, actually writing some of the above and taking notes about this article, because I find that makes the time go faster than watching “Knives Out” for the fifth time. I did eye the movie “Cats,” but decided that was a bridge too far for me first thing in the morning, even with Idris Elba playing Macavity.

Snack pack with Cheez-Its, water, Biscoff cookies and Purell.

Snack pack with Cheez-Its, water, Biscoff cookies and Purell.

Brekke Fletcher/CNN

When the snack bag cart came towards me, I longed for the sweet relief of a morning ginger ale to settle my tummy, but instead I got a sealed plastic bag, reminding me immediately of school lunches on field trips, but instead of actual food, I received Cheez-Its, a Biscoff cookie and a bottle of water.

Not to be ungrateful, but would it kill them to throw in a banana or a Kind bar?

Passing the time

Since that was all the aisle action we could expect (save for the eight times flight attendants walked up and down the aisles collecting trash), I decided to throw myself a bone and check out “Cats.”

Tried to watch "Cats," but it didn't take.

Tried to watch “Cats,” but it didn’t take.

Brekke Fletcher/CNN

After about 15 minutes, it was back to work. That movie. I can’t. Not even ironically.

I did sadly have to go to the lav a few times, as did 23A, but it was the cleanest and least gross airplane toilet I have ever encountered. Not a shred of evidence that anyone had ever been inside, so it would seem people are not always filthy, disgusting animals. I still don’t understand what usually goes on in there.

Why, yes. I do happen to want another bag of Cheez-Its.

Why, yes. I do happen to want another bag of Cheez-Its.

Brekke Fletcher/CNN

Before I knew it, three snack bags later (and yes, I ate six Biscoffs and three bags of Cheez-Its in six hours), the pilot was announcing our descent. The time went by so quickly, I was shocked. I thought it would feel endless.

Touchdown, heavy on the touch

As the plane touched down and the flight leader welcomed us to SFO, he had explicit deplaning instructions. Stay seated until the row in front of you has collected their belongings and cleared at least six feet.

The seatbelt sign turned off and guess what — that’s when the humans returned to their usual air travel/animal brain/fight-or-flight mode.

EVERYONE (not me or 23A, mind you) shot up and started climbing all over each other to get their belongings out of overhead bins. The aisle was immediately jammed, and despite trying to keep away from the throngs, I felt a body part of another traveler pressed against my right arm, which I jerked away, as I made the dirtiest look I could muster while masked.

Pandemonium upon landing -- all behavior bets are off.

Pandemonium upon landing — all behavior bets are off.

Brekke Fletcher/CNN

Because I’m conflict-averse, I strenuously texted my friend in NYC that the wheels had officially come off the bus. I was instantly reminded of how New Yorkers had handled the pandemic closures in April. Most everyone followed the rules, the streets were empty and quiet.

And then, boom, it’s late May, the captains turned off the seat belt sign, and everyone swarmed the parks and streets as if the thing was over, simply because they were over it.

Clearly, six hours was the most my fellow passengers could give. As I tried to take my turn, to get up and leave while standing my ground, I stepped aside as people pushed and plunged into me.

Then 23A passed by me, and I said to her, “Thank you for being such a thoughtful aisle-mate.”

Her clipped but polite reply as she whooshed past: “You, too. Be safe. Take care.”

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