What it’s like to fly in the US right now

There’s no doubt the novel coronavirus from China, now known as the COVID-19 disease, is on the minds of travelers.

They’ve heard all the news and recommendations from the experts. Despite it, many are continuing on with travel as scheduled, but others have adjusted their plans, perhaps to include more domestic locales or more stringent personal disinfecting procedures. Other people haven’t set foot in an airport since this all began just a couple of short months ago … and don’t plan to anytime soon.

As for me — I’ve flown, mostly for work, every week for the last few weeks. This includes as recently as yesterday, March 3. Leading up to every trip, my spouse, parents or friends will ask, “You still going?” So far, the answer has been “yes.” Though each yes has gotten a little 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, major companies halting employee travel, canceled conferences and trade shows, and future airline bookings presumably down so dramatically that all of the major U.S. airlines are offering change fee waivers on forward bookings, what’s it really like flying right now in the United States?

Based on my recent experiences, I’d say it’s both totally normal and also anything but.

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Monday morning and
Monday morning and Dulles appeared quieter than normal (Photo by Edward Pizzarello/PizzaInMotion.com)

Face masks are a thing … sort of

Until last month, I very rarely saw passengers on domestic flights wearing face masks. But, things have changed.

On both of my flights this week from Houston to Orlando and back, I was seated next to someone wearing a face mask. 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.

On the 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.

Passengers wear face masks to protect against the spread of the Coronavirus as they arrive on a flight from Asia at Los Angeles International Airport, California, on January 29, 2020. - A new virus that has killed more than one hundred people, infected thousands and has already reached the US could mutate and spread, China warned, as authorities urged people to steer clear of Wuhan, the city at the heart of the outbreak. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

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While I went two-for-two this week with having seatmates who wore masks during flight, that doesn’t paint the whole picture. If I had to guess, I’d say 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 as little as possible

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)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Both my recent flights were in first class (more on that in a minute), and several passengers around me either declined service entirely or asked for just a full can of soda and then nothing more. However, while a few around me took that approach, many others — most others — appeared to still eat and drink as usual.

Wipe it 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. 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, while 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.

(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

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

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, I was upgraded last week on a weekday flight to New York’s LaGuardia and again this week coming home from Orlando. In fact, coming back from Orlando, all upgrade eligible travelers were cleared as the aircraft went out with four empty first-class seats. Both of those events were — 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. TPG has been monitoring the loads for some upcoming transcontinental flights on heavy business travel routes and has seen the number of occupied seats decreasing (instead of increasing) as departure nears.

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 mostly normal on the outside

As of today, life inside the major domestic airports I’ve recently transited looks mostly normal. 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 far from empty, lounges are lively and there continues to be a mix of everyone from families to business travelers onboard domestic flights — at least for now.

Orlando airport
Orlando airport’s food court on March 3, 2020. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

But, 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 don’t apply to those who may have booked flights months ago — before any of us had ever heard the word coronavirus. So, 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 will be on the hook for monetary losses if they postpone or cancel.

As for what next week will hold across the nation’s airports, that’s anyone’s guess, but I’d put my miles on operations and behaviors continuing to deviate further from the norm, at least in the short run.

Additional resources for traveling during the coronavirus outbreak:

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