5 flights in 4 weeks: What it's really like to fly during the coronavirus pandemic

Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY

Ten seconds into the welcome-aboard greeting on a Southwest Airlines flight from Providence, Rhode Island, to Chicago on Father's Day, the flight attendant launched into the usual script about in-flight service.

"Shortly after takeoff, we'll offer complimentary soft drinks,'' she said.

"Oh, just kidding,'' she added, catching herself and giving the COVID-19 version of the food-and-drink service announcement.

"Sorry, I go into autopilot sometimes. We are offering a limited service at this time of just a cup of water and a bag of snack mix. It is per CDC guidelines. We are following those very diligently, but we look forward to hopefully offering you a full service again soon.''

During the preflight safety announcement, there was another change to the script when the oxygen-mask tutorial began: "You will remove your protective face covering,'' she said, emphasizing the word remove, "then place the yellow cup over your nose and mouth.'' 

In-flight scripts aren't the only things being rewritten as the airline industry grapples with the crushing coronavirus crisis, which ground U.S. travel to a near-halt beginning in late February. 

Airlines, airports, the Transportation Security Administration and others have touted intensive new cleaning measures and safety protocols including mask requirements, social distancing, plexiglass partitions at ticket and gate counters and other precautions in a bid to protect employees and lure skittish vacation and business travelers back.

But with so few travelers returning to the skies — TSA traveler counts have been steadily climbing from historic lows in April but as of Sundaywere still down 76%  from 2019 levels — questions abound about whether airlines are delivering on their promises and what it's like to fly.

Viral social media posts about scary full flights and passengers tossed off flights for refusing to wear a mask, only offer glimpses of the story.

What's it really like to fly during the pandemic? I took five Southwest flights in four weeks: the first on May 21, the last  on June 21. Southwest is the country's largest domestic carrier and an airline that has been adding back and filling flights at a good clip due to increased travel demand as coronavirus restrictions ease.

Why was I flying? I live in Chicago and hadn't seen my 20-something kids in Phoenix or my Mom in Connecticut since early February, so after nearly three months in quarantine, I flew to visit (and stay) with them. In between, I flew to Las Vegas to cover the reopening of that mega-tourist destination. (I also had a COVID-19 test after Las Vegas, which was negative.)

In some ways, flying has changed dramatically, with face masks a must, little-to-no in-flight service, and passengers warily eyeing each other, especially when someone sneezes, clears their throat or pushes their face mask down to their chin or neck. Except for one barking dog and a crying baby, these were the quietest flights I've ever been on.

 There's plenty that hasn't changed. Passengers still crowd the gate when it's time to board and rush to exit the plane, social-distancing reminders be damned. And clueless behaviors continue: a passenger on one of my flights watched a movie without earbuds (they were dangling down from the tray table latch) until a flight attendant asked him to put them in.

11 things I learned flying Southwest Airlines during the pandemic

There's an extra step during check-in: Travelers on Southwest, as with other airlines, will find a new health declaration form when they check in online or at the airport. The form asks travelers to pledge that they will: wear a face covering while traveling; will not travel if they symptoms of, have been diagnosed with or had exposure to COVID-19 in the past 14 days; and will check their temperature before flying to make sure they don't have a fever.  It's all self-reported, of course, so passengers travel at their own risk. Frontier Airlines is currently the only airline screening passengers but other airlines have been pushing for temperature checks at the TSA checkpoint.

Passengers checking in for a Southwest Airlines flight must acknowledge the airline's face mask policy and other health declarations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Skycap service is back at some airports, closed at others: Travelers who like the convenience of checking bags outside instead of lugging them into the terminal will find some skycap counters open and others still closed. Southwest counters were open in Chicago and Phoenix and closed in Las Vegas and Providence. The first two are staffed by Southwest employees, the latter two by contractors. 

No need for TSA PreCheck: I breezed through security at every airport, even on what are traditionally peak days and times and even as TSA numbers are steadily climbing from their April lows. The longest checkpoint line had fewer than 10 people, even in Las Vegas on a Sunday. The agency is touting new safety measures, including placing your boarding pass on the scanner instead of having the agent handle it, but I found a mixed bag, scanning it myself in some places and the agent grabbing it in others.

Airports are more eerie than airplanes, right now at least: I traveled through Chicago Midway, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport and Providence's T.F. Green. All were ghost towns except during my last flight. The upside: no lines. The downside: few or no places to grab food or a cocktail. However, signs were posted telling passengers where they might find something open.

A closed bar at TF Green International Airport in Providence, Rhode Island, on Sunday June 21. Airport restaurants, shops and bars across the country have been slow to reopen due to the travel slump from the coronavirus crisis.

In Chicago, it was a long walk to another concourse to find a bar. Just ahead of Memorial Day weekend, a passenger toting cups of beer to his gate was stopped by others to ask where he bought it. I waited in line for more than 15 minutes to grab a snack from a newsstand for the flight. In Phoenix, I wanted to grab some of Barrio Café's famous guacamole, but it, like most restaurants, was closed.

With travel picking up, airports are starting to open more places. When I landed at Midway on Father's Day, bars that were closed a week earlier were open (and bustling). It felt for a moment like a regular day at the airport.

A bookshop at TF Green International Airport in Providence, Rhode Island, remained closed in late June, like many other airport shops and restaurants due to the coronavirus travel slump.

Social distancing is largely ignored in the gate area and mask use is spotty: The gate areas, for Southwest at least, were pretty crowded. On one of my Chicago flights, I watched an older couple plop down right next to a woman working on her laptop in a row of four seats. She immediately moved down to the end of the row. All were wearing masks.

But mask use in airports is far from universal, even in places with signs telling travelers to wear them. To really get away from people, I had to move to an empty gate in each of the airports. One positive: I did notice an increase in mask usage in airports between my first and last flight as nationwide calls to wear masks intensified.

Passengers wait for boarding on a Southwest Airlines flight at Midway International Airport in Chicago. With travel picking up, gate areas might be more crowded than passengers expect.

Boarding is (slightly) more organized but passengers still stand up before it's their turn and lines still form in the jetway. Southwest, like all airlines, is touting a revamped boarding procedure designed to promote social distancing.  Instead of boarding passengers in groups of 30, the airline now boards in groups of 10. Gate agents repeatedly announce the new procedure and signs remind passengers to stay seated until their group is called.

A sign in the gate area at Chicago's Midway Airport details Southwest's new boarding procedure. It is designed to encourage social distancing.

But, as was the case pre-COVID 19, plenty of passengers stand up and crowd the area waiting for their number to be called. And even with a third of the usual passengers called at a time, lines still form in the jetway. Bottom line: If you don't like the idea of standing close to other passengers and don't care where you sit (Southwest doesn't assign seats; it's first-come, first-served once on the plane), wait to board.

Yes, most middle seats are empty (on Southwest): If there's one thing you can count on with Southwest, it's the airline's promise to limit the number of passengers per plane, effectively leaving the equivalent of all middle seats open, at least through Sept. 30. This is in contrast to American, United and discount airlines like Spirit and Frontier, which are selling as many seats as they can fill as travel rebounds from historic lows during the first and second quarter of 2020. 

On my Providence-to-Chicago flight, which had 92 passengers on a 175-seat Boeing 737-800 and cost me an unheard of $49 one-way, the flight attendant encouraged social distancing as passengers boarded.

"Leave that middle seat open for us,'' he said. (Families and couples traveling together are free to sit in the middle seats.)

Some of my flights had a similar announcement; others didn't.

On four of my flights, I had a row to myself, as did many passengers around me. On the other flight, I started with my own row until a passenger tapped me on the shoulder mid-flight and asked to sit in the window seat. It was my first flight in months and it unnerved me so I asked him why. He said his arm rest was broken. I reluctantly obliged but asked him to put his mask on when he took it off shortly after sitting down. 

There are no mask police on the plane but most passengers kept them on: Except for my aforementioned seatmate, I only encountered one nearby passenger flouting the mask requirement. She was in the row across from me on the Providence-Chicago flight and the mask hung off one of her ears the entire flight while she read a book. The only times she put it on was when a flight attendant approached and for landing. On trips to the restroom, I saw scattered passengers without them, but in general, passengers seemed to be following the rules, which allow you to take off the mask or face covering while eating or drinking.

With limited in-flight service, the flight attendants aren't traversing the aisles and thus not actively looking for scofflaws.  Announcements about keeping masks on were made on a few of my flights but not all. In addition, passengers get reminders when they check in for their flight.

Forget about that in-flight toast to your first getaway in months, even with a Diet Coke: Southwest is only serving water and snack mix instead of the usual lineup of soft drinks, beer, wine and spirits plus free pretzels. Even on longer flights, only snacks are being served to limit interactions between passengers and crews.  

You can – and should – bring your own food but not your own alcohol. A passenger on one of my flights reached into the overhead bin for a can of beer he bought at the airport and a flight attendant kindly told he couldn't drink it onboard. In Las Vegas, a gate agent reminded passengers that even though bars there sell drinks to go, they are not allowed to bring them onto the plane.  

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Southwest Airlines is only serving water and a snack mix on flights during the pandemic, and then only on flights over 250 miles. The airline started serving canned water but has since switched to a cup of water with ice.

Exiting the plane is a social-distancing nightmare: When my flight from Chicago to Phoenix landed in late May, the flight attendant had a final announcement for passengers: "Please maintain social distancing while exiting the aircraft.'' The notes in my iPhone say, "Hahahahaha. No one is doing it!''  

On my Providence-to-Chicago flight, there was another social-distancing reminder to wait your turn to get off the plane. 

"Please don't all squish into that aisle way,''  the flight attendant said.

Reminder or no, the situation was the same on each of my flights, and in a few cases, no announcement was made at all. So maybe the airline has already given up on the idea that passengers are going to stay seated until it's time for them to exit.

Social distancing in baggage claim is hit or miss: As with deplaning, old habits are hard to break. Passengers still crowd around the baggage carousel waiting for their bags, some with masks on, many without.

The Southwest Airlines baggage claim carousel at TF Green International Airport in Providence, Rhode Island, was crowded on a summer Saturday despite social distancing recommendations during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Las Vegas and Chicago airports had social-distancing markers on the floor in baggage claim but Providence did not (thought it had them in the security line.) I didn't check a bag on the Phoenix flight.

The Southwest Airlines baggage carousel at Midway International Airport in Chicago has social distancing markers on the floor for passengers to stand on as they wait for their bags.

Travelers seemed to heed the stickers on the floor in Chicago, but the flight was only half-full and some of the passengers were only connecting at the airport.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Safe to fly during COVID? Flying Southwest Airlines during a pandemic