1st Flights Post-COVID? Inconsistent. But So Is Everything.

After rescheduling a trip to see my daughter three times since COVID hit, I finally traveled the first week of July. I was on four separate flights, all with American Airlines. As a result of only using one airline, obviously my testimony here is limited. Many people were surprised to learn I was willing to fly, especially on the very day (July 1st) that the airline would no longer require space between passengers. My flights were changed twice within two weeks prior to take off and I learned much of the change was due to combining flights to carry more passengers with fewer aircraft in the air. Like their competitors, American Airlines was bleeding money for several months and needed to make more revenue.

The route was: NY to Philadelphia, Philly to FL, FL to Charlotte, NC, Charlotte back to NY. Prior to flying, there was much discussion among the family and we pondered weird questions such as, “should we double-mask?” “Should we wear two pairs of plastic gloves so we can pull off the top pair after security?” We have been blessed throughout these months with good health but still take the pandemic seriously-particularly at the thought of intermixing with hundreds of others at airports.

I was quickly deceived when blocks of seats in my home airport were taped off in bright yellow, assuring ample distance between passengers waiting to board. I took off the gloves, as it was far easier to constantly sanitize my hands vs. deal with the crunching up gloves. The yellow tape and masked airline staff gave me security. I relaxed.

Until I boarded.

The young man next to me pulled his mask down immediately upon buckling his seat belt. It was July 1st, so perhaps there was a new rule about not needing it once you were settled in your seat. He sniffed hard. Then wiped his nose with his hand. I shifted deeply into the window, my hair pressed firmly against the glass. My mind questioned whether I got the rules wrong. I didn’t. An announcement came over the speaker threatening that anyone not wearing their face covering over their mouth and nose might possibly be removed from the flight.

I again relaxed. It would just be a matter of minutes before the flight attendant asked my neighbor to properly mask himself. Wrong again. She glanced at him, kept walking and half way up the aisle, she too pulled her mask down, exposing her nose but covering her mouth.

A man 2 rows behind me coughed every 7 minutes during the flight to Philadelphia. This is not an exaggeration. It was excessive and the poor souls around him were in visible anguish each time I turned to peek. During his coughing intermissions, he blew his nose. Over and over. The 70-something woman to my right two rows ahead who I had a clear view of sanitized her hands every time that man started up again. Fear was on her face. Even through her tightly secured mask. 

He could have had allergies. Or, a cold. Or, COVID. Who knows? The flight attendants made no fuss over the cougher.

Different states have different rules. We New Yorkers tend to be more uptight than most and maybe these were Pennsylvania flight attendants with Pennsylvania rules.

The flight from PA to FL was the exact opposite. The flight attendants were serious. They repeatedly warned specific people to pull their masks completely over their noses. They moved a few of us to different seats (myself included) to create some additional space in-between passengers. These women were no-nonsense and I appreciated their awareness.

The return flight from FL to NC was PACKED. We passengers were stuffed into the hot flight like sardines. There wasn’t an inch to move and the flight attendants had to pull carry-on’s off the flight because the overhead compartments were full. Similar to flight #1, the 30-something next to me pulled his mask down. Just as I was about to request that he cover his face, he pulled it back up. Then down. I just took a deep breath, hoping our shared air was COVID-free. 

The NC to NY flight was more spacious but at that point, if I was going to contract COVID, I would have definitely picked it up during the previous three flights. I was over it. “It” being any form of worry. I had been exposed to more germs, sweat, coughing, sneezing and people in hours than I had been in months. Flying is an uncontrolled germy environment, regardless of how attentive the airline staff may be. 

During my subsequent 2-week mandatory self-quarantine, I started thinking about the flight behavior inconsistencies. Then, I realized – those inconsistencies can be added to all the rest we experience daily.

Depending on the size of the person, there might be six inches of space between my face and the person next to me on a flight. But we need six feet of space between humans everywhere else. Target and Walmart managers are clicking counters as customers walk in to be sure they don’t go over 91 employees in the GIANT super stores.

-We get our temperature taken at work every single day. No temperatures were taken in the four cities I traveled in at the airports. I could have boarded with an elevated temperature.

-When flying, we literally share the same air as the person next to us but we must be separated at restaurants with outdoor seating.

-A shopper can sneeze, wipe their nose and then touch all the clothes on every rack at TJMaxx, but if the clothes are tried on, they must be put aside for 72 hours before they are placed back on the rack. 

-As I stood in a long Kohls line with my son and several other rule-abiding mask-wearing customers ready to check out, a family of four (Mom, Dad, toddler daughter and maybe 8-year old son) remained mask-less. Mom and Dad joked, laughed heartily, moved around constantly and continuously took up space near senior citizens in line who desperately tried to avoid them. Kohls staff walked by unphased by the obvious display of rebellion. 

These are just a few of my personal inconsistent experiences. No doubt, you have several of your own. My family and I follow protocols. It’s part of our work lives and we willingly practice COVID safety in our personal lives. While many COVID-related research studies contradict themselves, one thing appears consistent: wearing a mask helps prevent contraction of viruses. 

The bottom line is that inconsistencies will remain. Not just because there are rule-breakers everywhere. But because those who are supposed to uphold the rules are worn out by the violators and society can’t idiot-proof every potential threat, though America is currently trying. Although it’s not entirely as simple as this – taking personal responsibility and respecting others would go a long way.