A look at flying as we navigate the seas of COVID-19
I’m one of those weird people who really, really loves airports and loves to fly. For me, flying always has been about adventure and excitement. I am known for people at the airport – any airport – at least three hours before departure—just because I love all of the shops and the people-watching that happens in the facility.
This past in late May, I flew for the first time since March. This was the first time I had been in an airport since all of the coronavirus restrictions were implemented. I kind of had an idea of what to expect – I mean, I knew my airline (Southwest) was requiring face masks throughout the flight, and I knew that some routes had additional restrictions, but I really wasn’t prepared for what I experienced.
My day started at 3 a.m. in Tennessee. I live pretty much between Knoxville and Nashville, so I have my pick of airports. Since Southwest has non-stops to Chicago’s Midway Airport, and our flights cost only $49 each way, it was a no-brainer for us to head north to Nashville.
We arrived at the airport parking garage at 6:50 a.m. Normally, we would park in the economy lot, which costs $11 a day. There is a shuttle that runs the length of the many parking areas and drops you right at the departure area. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, and a severe decrease in customers, Nashville’s BNA Airport had closed all of the adjacent lots. Passengers were instructed to park in the newly constructed parking garage, which has a price tag of $16 a day. From there, it is a short walk from the terminal to the check-in counter.
Nashville’s airport – BNA – is not especially large. Despite that, there usually are a lot of people traveling through it, which causes lines to be especially long at check-in counters and at the TSA and body scan entry points. I admit, I was worried as we approached the airport. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 9:40 a.m., and I was worried that we would be cutting it close to make it to the gate on time. To add insult to possible injury, it was really early, I’d been up since 3 a.m., and was DYING for a cup of coffee from Starbucks. Missing that would be an even bigger bummer, since Southwest announced on their website that their in-flight service would consist only of canned water (yes, in cans. . .don’t they rust!?) and their snack mix. No coffee.
My worries were quickly calmed. BNA looked like the airport in my hometown of Yakima, Wash. Yakima consists of two terminals – right and left. With only four planes a day flying in and out, it’s pretty much a ghost town. That is what BNA looked like – a ghost town. There were only four people ahead of me at the TSA check-in, and I was behind two others at the body scanner.
I made it to my gate in less than 15 minutes – and that INCLUDED a stop at the usually very crowded Starbucks for a much-needed latte.
As we approached the gate, we were greeted with overhead announcements from Southwest that face masks would be a requirement for all passengers on their flights. (They were provided, in case you didn’t have one.) In addition, we were informed that the flights were being purposely undersold, in order to ensure that all middle seats could be left empty. The crew implored us to keep social distancing in place in order to give passengers the six feet of separation that the CDC recommended, and let only 10 passengers on at a time.
I was shocked to realize that no one grumbled at all with any of the airline’s requirements. I also was kind of surprised to notice that inside the airport, very few people were wearing face masks, even though they all complied once on the plane. (It should be noted that Tennessee’s COVID-19 restrictions were among the first to be revoked.)
After an uneventful 90-minute flight to Chicago, we were off the plane and in the terminal within minutes. I have flown to and through Chicago many times, and, I have to say, this experience was definitely unusual. As we headed down to the baggage terminal, we noticed that there were absolutely NO lines at the TSA checkpoint coming into the airport. By the time we made our way to the baggage claim, our bags were waiting on the conveyor belt. It was eerie, and almost surreal, how deserted Chicago’s Midway Airport was.
From the terminal, we walked out to the sidewalk to catch the shuttle to the rental car area. We had pre-booked and pre-paid for our rental car, so we expected the process to be pretty quick. (That’s a Pro-Tip: Pre-pay for your rental car in order to save some money!) This was actually the longest part of the whole process. Because of COVID-19, the rental car counters are on a reduced staffing schedule. There was no expedited process line, and the two people ahead of us did not have reservations. We waited about 30 minutes to reach the counter. Once there, we were informed that the truck we reserved was not ready. I asked what other options were available – another Pro-Tip) and we were given an upgrade to a new Jeep Wrangler. We drove away from the airport marveling at the fact that the entire process from leaving the plane to driving out of the parking garage took less than 45 minutes.
My Sunday flight back to Nashville on Southwest was scheduled to depart at 1:10 p.m. I knew that I should be at the airport by no later than 11, but, since I am me, and like to be sooo early, I got to the Southwest ticket counter at 10:30. There was no line as I approached the counter. I quickly checked my bag and headed down to TSA and the body scanner area.
Where I had a few people ahead of me when I arrived at the Nashville TSA area, there was absolutely NO ONE in line at the Midway TSA checkpoint. I took off my shoes, got out my electronics and placed everything on the conveyor belt without feeling the pressure of angering someone behind me. I’ll admit, it was really nice! After breezing through security, I walked toward Concourse A. My flight was leaving from Concourse B, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, all of the food and snack shops were closed in my terminal – even the Dunkin Donuts kiosk! The only thing that was open in Concourse B was an airport shop where you could buy magazines and sundries.
As I continued walking on my quest for sustenance, I noticed a major difference between BNA and Midway – aside from the many store and food outlet closings. Nearly everyone was wearing face masks. I would say a good 95 perecent of the people in the terminal wore them. This was a drastic change from Nashville, which maybe had 20 percent of the people wearing them.
In Concourse A, I had expected to find at least one sit-down restaurant. Instead, I was greeted with a sushi bar that was serving cocktails, a Nuts on Clark kiosk, Woodgrain, a pizza place, and Billy Goat Tavern. These places were only walk-up and take-out. There was seating around the corner, in what is usually the food court, and down the concourse on your way to Concourse B. Word to the wise: DO NOT GO TO MIDWAY AIRPORT HUNGRY!
Armed with caramel corn, I was happy that I had purchased some pastries to bring home with me. I had checked to make sure that we were still allowed to bring these kinds of snacks through security, and happy that they were allowed, since they became breakfast and lunch. (Sorry, kids, mom ate your snacks!) I walked back to Concourse B, and awaited my flight.
Once again, I was greeted by happy Southwest agents who reiterated the necessity of face masks. Once again, the plane was very undersold – there were less than 60 of us on a plane that is meant to seat about 175 passengers. Onboard, once again, the flight attendants passed out cans of water and snacks. Back in Nashville, I was greeted the same way I was at Midway – with a waiting suitcase on a conveyor belt. I was back at my car and on Interstate 40 within 20 minutes of leaving our aircraft.
Upon reflecting on my flight experience, I have come to a few realizations.
- First: I always will be extremely early to the airport, because that is me. It’s a good habit, even during slow times.
- Second: People are caring. I know that is a hard one right now, what with the craziness going on in the world, but it’s true. The passengers I encountered were polite, respectful, and mindful of social distancing and face mask wearing.
- Third: Deplaning. People always will crowd the aisles. I don’t get this, but they do. It’s sort of like debarkation day on a cruise. You know you can’t go anywhere until they call your number, but you still congregate in the stairwells and block the elevators. It’s a strange phenomenon.
Finally, I was impressed by the airport staff, the TSA agent and the airline personnel. I appreciated that they wanted to keep the skies open to flying, and I believe that the precautions and safeguards they’ve put in place will ensure a safer environment. Gloves and masks were the norm, and the bathrooms were constantly being cleaned. It was very methodical. I believe that these standards are going to bleed over into the cruise industry as companies begin their plans to sail again. Much like the protocols and precautions that took place after 9/11, I believe that these minor inconveniences will become our “new normal.”
So, if you are planning a trip in the near future, I leave you with these tips:
- Bring (and wear!) a mask.
- Eat before you reach the airport.
- Pre-book and prepay your car rental.
After all, we’re all in this together!