Wire gates blocked off access to shops and one entire wing of the airport. There was an eerie sense of quiet. It was my first flight since the COVID-19 outbreak started, and one that took my breath away and yet felt exhilarating.
My husband and I landed $99 round-trip tickets from St. Louis to Columbus, Ohio, on Southwest Airlines. Originally, the flight was for April, but as the coronavirus ramped up, the trip was canceled. We could either have our money refunded or reschedule.
Typically, flights to visit my daughter and son-in-law run about $220, so this was a steal. We decided to gamble and reschedule for the end of May. It worked. Our flight took off May 22.
So, what is it like to fly in a post-coronavirus world?
Masks are not optional
Wearing masks inside St. Louis Lambert Airport was optional and that included going through TSA and at the gate. However, to board the plane, they needed to be secured across your nose and mouth, and we had to wear them the entire plane ride, which for this flight included switching planes in Chicago.
We had the pretty blue surgical masks. With every breath, this mask is like a suction cup to your face. Breathe in, it stifles you. Breathe out, it is like blowing air right up your own nose. Uncomfortable.
TOO MUCH SPACE: Airlines are trying to win back travelers with lower fares. There are fewer flights, causing concourses to remain empty or closed such as the ones at St. Louis Lambert Airport.
To top it off, my face started to itch and breakout. As soon as we boarded and were in our seats, my husband quickly placed the mask below his nose. He said there was no way he could make it that long, and he was “willing to risk it.” I endured as much as possible, taking it on and off my nose and mouth just to find any “fresh” air relief.
After complaining to my daughter, she offered us both fabric masks. I took one. My husband did not. I must say it provided greater comfort. If the mask requirement on flights continues and you are a frequent flyer, fabric masks are well worth the investment.
Eat before you go
Unfortunately, both of our flights were in the evening. Like normal, I thought we would grab snacks and possibly dinner.
Our outgoing flight stopped at Chicago Midway Airport. We could not find an airport convenience store open in our concourse to grab even a soda — since they don’t serve those or snacks on the flight. On our return flight, we did find two stores open in between the concourses, but they were running low on supplies.
The return flight was around dinner time. There were only two eateries open for business, and they were in a different concourse. You either like pizza or hamburgers. Since they were the only two options, the lines were so very long.
Bottom line, pack some snacks before future flights.
Room to spare
There is an upside to flying — extra space.
Southwest Airlines, like many other airlines, is not flying “full” planes. The middle seat is left empty unless you are flying with a relative. On our flight from Columbus, we flew with just a little more than 30 people for the entire plane. The extra space was wonderful. We also boarded 10 people at time.
I am loyal to Southwest, and I find they are doing a good job of making people feel safe by cleaning in between each turn and providing extra room for social distancing.
CLOSED SHOP: There were only two places to eat at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Most shops and restaurants had security fences down and a sign relating to COVID-19 temporary closures. Only time will tell if they open again.
However, just how long planes can fly with fewer passengers, more sanitation and not raise cost, only time will tell. Right now, they are just enticing travelers with low fares.
Overall, my experience was not negative. It was freeing to board a plane and see a loved one without the long drive. I’ve already booked another cheap flight in October.
For me it is simple. If I feel safe to fly, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. Truly, it is about personal choice and responsibility. It is something I learned from my mom.
For years, my mother had a weakened immune system because of chemotherapy treatments. In the hospital, we’d suit up from head to toe with gloves, suits and masks just to enter the room. I was her caregiver at home. She looked at me and said, “We’re not doing that here.”
She made the choice to live her life and not require others to adjust their lives for her sake. For 10 years, she did not self-isolate, mask up or demand others do it for her well-being. Why?
My mom lived a life without fear. If there was something she wanted to do, she did it. Missouri State Fair — check. Travel to Minnesota — check. See her grandbabies every day — check. And that is how I chose to live.
Flying did not scare me, nor was it the first time during the coronavirus outbreak that my husband and I traveled. In April, before Missouri’s stay-at-home order and around the time of the original flight, we drove across two states to see our girl.
Perhaps death in my family so early prompts action. My thought, “If I were to die today of the coronavirus, I want one more day with my kids.” I cannot allow fear of “what if” to cripple my life, cause me to withdraw from the world, or lose touch with my most valued people — family. Perhaps that is just my mom in me.