Triumphs and Fails of A Return to Flight

In early July my partner and I boarded a plane for the first time in 16 months. We had hoped it would be the first trip of many in our return to regular air travel, a confirmation that everything was safe and well in the world. I imagined writing extravagant travel stories about using my new Priority Pass and TSA PreCheck and how I planned to maximize these benefits for the rest of 2021. As it turns out, after about 15 minutes in the airport my partner and I agreed we likely would not be flying for the rest of 2021, or perhaps longer.

But let me back up a bit. The trip itself was planned in the springtime of 2021 and timed so that both my partner and I would be fully vaccinated. We would be visiting his family, all of whom are fully vaccinated, as we hadn’t visited with them since November 2019. After a year and a half of video calls but no physical contact, the trip was a long time coming.

Combining bubbles

Sixteen months into the pandemic my partner was the only person I had spent time with indoors and unmasked (save for my dental office during a cleaning). We both were very cautious, especially given that I work in healthcare and am still working regularly from the office. All other interactions with friends, family, and neighbors had been masked, outdoors, or both up until July 2021. Based on how the data looked in May and early June we felt comfortable expanding our bubble to include his family as long as some general ground rules were set. We had all agreed on these rules and were taking precautions to minimize risk.

The first clue that the trip might get off on the wrong foot was the news reporting on a new strain of the COVID-19 virus that had the potential to be more impactful than the original strain; we now know this to be the Delta variant. I first saw mention of this about a week or two before we were set to leave DC. The reports of breakthrough cases were concerning to read about, and some alarms began ringing in my public health head – alarms I so desperately did not want to hear 16 months into what had sometimes seemed like a lifetime of a pandemic.

As this would be the first time that my partner and I would be opening our bubble beyond ourselves in 16 months, we thought it pertinent to review the comfort levels of everyone involved in light of the new Delta information. About a week before leaving we called up my partner’s parents. We talked about what we felt were safe activities in the days leading up to our bubbles joining and felt generally good about the upcoming trip’s safety.

The journey begins

Our flight left from Baltimore, MD, so we had a bit of a journey in order to get from DC to the airport. We took the metro (local train), which we had taken several times during the pandemic, to get to Union Station in downtown DC. Having taken the metro previously we were not surprised to see a decent percentage of individuals without their masks on, but weren’t too concerned since the train ride was only about 20 minutes. Plus, we were sure that things would be much better on Amtrak, which we caught from Union Station to the Baltimore airport train station. President Biden had required masks to be worn on all transit and in transit stations, so everything would be okay, right?

Unfortunately that was not the case. We were horrified to walk into Union Station and see at least 25% of people unmasked and walking around the station – and no one was saying anything about it. We also had not packed a lunch, figuring we would grab food from Union Station. Unfortunately, most food locations were closed save for a few not-very-healthy/not-very-vegan friendly options, so we wound up scrounging up a semi-lunch to eat outdoors in front of Union Station while we waited for our (delayed) train.

Upon boarding Amtrak we were further surprised to see several people on the train without masks. While being unmasked in Union Station was one thing, the thought of being in close quarters and sharing air on a train with unmasked individuals who were not following federal guidelines made both my partner and I very nervous. And while we did see the conductor ask one person to put their mask on, this person subsequently dropped their mask back down after the conductor walked away. Unfortunately our dismay only grew when we arrived at the airport.

Did someone say travel perks?

I was able to use my TSA PreCheck for the first time when going through security, although the time saved was not very noticeable due to overall short security lines. However, I was happy to be granted the ability to leave my shoes on and walk through a metal detector instead of the typical airport screener, and wound up shaving about 5-7 minutes off my wait time.

As mentioned, when we arrived at the airport we were shocked to see 25-33% of people in the airport without masks, even with the federal ruling regarding airplanes and airports. To clarify, these people were not eating or drinking or even talking on the phone (not that having a phone conversation is an excuse to go mask-less). We felt very exposed walking around the airport and, after finding our gate, wound up backtracking to the most remote part of the airport to sit alone and wait for our plane to arrive. Every so often I would quickly pull down my mask and shove a snack into my mouth while holding my breath and then quickly pull up my mask while I chewed. Besides those instances we both kept our masks on the full time in the airport.

Hoping for some sort of reprieve, we sought to use my new Priority Pass to visit the airport lounge, which we discovered was only a short distance away from our gate! However, when we walked in we saw the number of people not wearing masks skyrocket from about 25% to about 75% – almost no one was using a mask properly while watching sports or reading the newspaper, including the lounge employees. The lounge was small and, pre-pandemic, looked like it had had a buffet for self service. Now, post-pandemic, everything was wrapped up and had to be handed out by the lounge employees. I quickly picked out a pre-packaged drink and snack and then my partner and I booked it out of there to await our plane in masked solitude. So disappointed were we that we started our discussion about purchasing a car while sitting in the airport and realizing that, based on our trip in-progress, we would not be comfortable flying until 2022, if not later.

New priorities

We were happy to see that, when boarding the plane, everyone was masked. Prior to takeoff our pilot made an announcement explaining the federal ruling and subsequent fines, and politely asked everyone to cooperate to make everyone’s travels that much easier. Luckily the flight itself was uneventful and we were picked up by my partner’s father from the airport. It was so nice to be unmasked around other people and to be able to hug family again. We enjoyed ourselves by eating good food, sleeping in, and catching up on the last year and a half. It was also wonderful to spend so much active time outdoors – in the first few days we went hiking, biking and canoeing.

While at his parent’s house, my partner and I realized his parent’s lifestyle encompassed something we were missing in our city life… nature. While we have green spaces and parks and trails in DC, his parents live on 10+ acres of beautiful land that is easily accessible from the front door. I didn’t realize how much I had missed walking around in the grass barefoot – something I would never do in DC. His mom is a strong native plant advocate and has dozens of plants and garden spaces set up to provide a home and food source for butterflies and bees. Hearing her talk about native gardens, I found myself yearning to create my own. His family also has a robust food garden with two mature blueberry bushes. We were able to harvest three gallons of blueberries in the seven days we spent visiting, so blueberries accompanied everything we ate; I ran out of things to eat with blueberries and wound up dehydrating a small portion to make fruit leather! There was something very soothing and gratifying about spending an hour outside picking a gallon’s worth of blueberries in the summer heat.

While spending time with my partner’s family and nature was absolutely lovely, it was interesting to see how our talks about levels of exposure to others became complicated at times, even after having several discussions amongst ourselves in which we all felt we understood each other. My partner’s parents are luckily very forward-thinking and health-conscious people and we were able to talk things out, but it did give us further food for thought on how to have clearer conversations about combining social bubbles with others in the future, if we choose to do so.

Travel fails

The day before we flew home to DC we received an email from our airline alerting us that airport security lines were long (we were flying the week of Independence Day) and advising us to arrive at the airport at least 3 hours prior to our flight. My partner and I are both very familiar with the Atlanta airport, having flown in and out of it a multitude of times over the years, and we’ve found the world’s busiest airport to be very efficient, so we brushed off the warning and didn’t pay much mind.

The day of our flight back to Baltimore we happened to arrive at the airport 2.5 hours prior to departure, but took our times moseying to the bathroom and debating food purchases. When we walked to the security area our (masked) jaws dropped – the security line was significantly longer than we had ever seen it before. Like I mentioned, we’ve flown in and out of the Atlanta airport plenty of times so we know when the security lines are bad, and they were bad. We decided to split up while traversing security as my partner does not have the TSA PreCheck benefit. I found the PreCheck security line to be longer than expected, but all in all it only took me 25 minutes to get through security. However, my poor partner waited in the regular security line for over an hour. (On a side note, I hope this experience will nudge him to use my free Global Entry/ TSA PreCheck credit from my Citi Prestige card to purchase a free membership for himself). As I was unsure when he would be exiting security I stayed in the immediate post-security spot in the airport instead of enjoying my wait in the Atlanta Priority Pass lounge. Luckily we had just enough time for him to get through security and get to the gate before boarding began, so we had no other time to find food or relax.

Even though we flew the same airline to and from Atlanta, our return flight experience was vastly different than the first. A number of people on the plane were unmasked, including some airline staff at various points of the flight. I didn’t see the flight attendants talk to anyone about using their mask even though I saw a flight attendant look directly at one man whose mouth I could clearly see – from several rows behind him. Even the person sitting directly next to me did not wear his mask properly and I could see his mouth. I spent the entirety of time before take-off quite tense, and finally pointedly asked him to raise his mask. Afraid of what I’d see I then refused to look at him later in the flight, as I was sure it had fallen again and I didn’t need the extra stress.

Writing this up now I’m more accustomed to seeing mask-less individuals indoors, but I distinctly remember the concern we both felt travelling via plane for the first time during the pandemic. Due to this, we’ve decided to keep all travel for the remainder of the year via rental car and not to further combine social bubbles with anyone else, including our families.

What has your flight experience been like during the pandemic?

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