Eager to get back to travel after being grounded for several months during the COVID-19 lockdown, on June 25, I flew from Chicago O’Hare airport to Charleston for a getaway on Folly Beach, South Carolina. I knew that American Airlines had instituted enhanced cleaning measures on planes, which put me at ease about walking down the airplane aisle again, but I wasn’t too sure about what the airport would be like.
Spoiler alert: Flying now in the US was fine and I felt safe! Here’s what it’s really like to fly during the COVID-19 pandemic:
I parked in the economy lot at the airport and donned my face mask before I boarded the airport shuttle bus with about 12 other masked people. As indicated on the airport’s website, they limited the number of passengers on airport shuttle buses to 15 or less and kept true to their word. The driver did not assist anyone with their luggage. Less contact ensures cleanliness and outweighs the convenience.
Once inside Terminal 3, it was somewhat crowded, but virtually everyone was using the face coverings now required for flying. While I did not personally witness anyone cleaning, I don’t think it was just my imagination that everything seemed more gleaming than the last time I had been there in the pre-COVID era. Signs with CDC and CDPH protective action messages were prominently displayed on everything from doors to floors.
In the TSA Pre-Check line, circular stickers with an eye-catching illustration of a little red prop plane with a heart-shaped plume of exhaust politely reminded everyone to maintain six feet between passengers. The TSA agent asked that I put my boarding pass on the scanner myself and took my ID in his gloved hands as he asked me to briefly pull down my mask so he could visually verify that my face matched my photo.
After whisking through security, I headed towards my gate in Concourse L, which appeared to be the only concourse in use. Maybe L stands for “Little” as it is the smallest concourse. It is usually reserved for petite puddle-jumper planes! The week I traveled, airlines were operating only about 15% of their scheduled flights and using their largest planes for cargo during these unprecedented times. The number of people in the concourse seemed sparse except for long lines forming outside the limited number of concessions that were open - Starbucks and McDonald’s.
With shops closed and nothing but fast food available, I got in in line at McDonald’s, following the social distancing stickers. Many passengers were using one of the two self-order kiosks, which had a hand sanitizer dispenser between them. I found it faster—and safer—to place my contact-less order with the server behind the plexiglass at the register. The area where people were waiting for orders was more crowded, with fewer floor decals giving direction to reduce density. Still, service was speedy, and the wait was short.
The end of the concourse near my gate proved to be the most congested area. There were four other flights departing from neighboring gates around the same time. The airline still boarded by groups. The gate agent stopped each person long enough to ensure six feet was kept between each person in the jetway. Each passenger scanned their own boarding pass. About 75% of the 76 seats aboard the aircraft were filled.
On board, there was no food or beverage service, but I was surprised to see the inflight magazine available in every seatback pocket. Despite applying an electrostatic spray inside the aircraft every seven days which kills 99.9999% of viruses and bacteria within 10 minutes, I doubted that these were hand-cleaned enough for me! American Airlines assures passengers that they are deep cleaning seat buckles, seats, tray tables and other surfaces more frequently.
Deplaning at Charleston airport was like walking into a glistening ghost town. Passing empty gates and closed concessions, I quickly came to the baggage claim area. Signs with clever phrases like “Embrace the Space” were posted throughout. Large stickers with sayings designed to amuse and be remembered were on many seats, including “Like a Good Neighbor Please Sit Over There”. Getting a good chuckle—and Instagram-worthy photos with the signs and the #PracticeSocialDistancingAtCHS tagline—seems to be part of flying now.
Despite the seriousness and uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation, I felt confident in the overall cleanliness efforts taken while I satisfied my wanderlust. Flying now was a different experience, but a reassuring one. I’m looking forward to my next trip – and so should you! Safe travels! Have more questions about staying safe while travelling? Here’s a great resource from the Mayo Clinic!
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As a Travel Program Manager, Michelle has planned domestic and international incentives and meetings for clients in multiple industries for over 15 years. She enjoys delivering tailored experiences that exceed expectations. Michelle’s passion for travel extends outside of work, and her favorite destinations are Charleston, Maui, Italy, and Thailand.