Coronavirus air travel: a postcard from a Michigan to Tampa-bound plane

Many airports nationwide have been emptier than usual during the coronavirus pandemic. (Shutterstock photo)

When it comes to air travel, we’re all on our own.

That’s my conclusion as my family and I just flew to Tampa.

I booked our flights believing I could control our coronavirus risk exposure. But I wasn’t even through the TSA screening before a young woman with a beautiful purple-patterned duffle bag shook my confidence.

She was about six feet behind me when we started through the line. By the time I grabbed my workhorse black backpack from the conveyor belt, it was next to the woman’s pretty duffle. And when I turned from putting on my shoes, I saw that she was right next to me.

“Why wouldn’t someone tell her to stand back?” I thought to myself.

Those moments didn’t end after TSA clearance.

My air travel experience, once nearly routine, took on the now-typical, surreal COVID-19 aspects from the moment we stepped out of the car, headed for the terminal doors at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and put on our masks. 

The airport was scary for a minute, like the first time you realize the grocery store has no toilet paper, chicken, or pasta. It should have people. The carts shouldn’t be empty. It shouldn’t be this easy to avoid other travelers on a weekday morning.

Social distancing and the coronavirus have changed air travel. They’ve changed everything, of course, but some of it feels like it’s almost within reach. Michigan residents soon can eat at restaurants again. Salons are outlining their plans for when they get the nod. Golfers already can rent carts for themselves, and we won’t have to spend summer away from our state’s shorelines.

But when will we be ready to fly?


The International Air Transport Association said it expects air travel to recover more slowly than the rest of the economy. In 2019, 1.1 billion customers flew domestically and internationally in the United States — an all-time record. According to an IATA report from May 13, those levels may not be reached again until 2023. 

Meantime, the Airlines for America industry trade group calls passenger volumes “decimated.” A week ago, the average number of passengers on a domestic flight was 31 — down from 100 at the start of the year. Airline route cuts can’t keep pace with the drop in demand. And reports indicate only 60 percent of Americans will be willing to fly in the first six months after travel advisories are lifted.

But the airlines are trying. Enticing prices, on some routes, can be found. And they all promise they’re taking steps to keep passengers safe. 

“See what we’re doing to keep you healthy, and how you can travel smart along the way,” is at the top of one airline’s website. Below that, a photo of a flight attendant wearing a facemask illustrates the reasoning for all passengers to wear one, too.

My trip is not something you’ll see photos of on my Facebook or Twitter. I see the eyebrows raise when I mention it on Zoom calls. I know it sounds risky for a southeast Michigan resident who’s spent the pandemic within a few dozen miles of the deadly epicenter in our state.

I know that for many people, including ones who’ve suffered greatly from this virus, just the idea of getting onto an airplane sounds far too risky.

I thought I’d be that person.

But as my family worked hard on eight weeks of social isolation, a few personal circumstances started to influence how we viewed flight risks. And we decided to head toward the sun, heat, and beach, knowing that we could stay in a family property that, like our home, would let us socially distance.

I left the TSA area about 30 minutes before our plane would board, shaking off the too-close fellow passenger with the pretty duffel bag. It wasn’t difficult to do while walking past closed restaurants and empty waiting areas.

A few gates down, unease started to build. Passengers for my flight waited in small groups, about half wearing masks. More kept arriving. Most seemed to stay a six-foot horizontal distance, but for others that never turned into a full radius, as people in adjacent rows may have been closer.

Everything may have been sanitized before we got there, but passengers changed that. I tried not to stare at the woman chasing two toddlers while loudly calling their names. None wore masks. The kids kept touching things. The man with multiple fast-food containers got up and moved, leaving his trash on the seat. 

In a weird twist, it was the public bathroom that felt the most sanitary. A cleaning woman seemed to be stationed there, along with her supply cart. It allowed me to overlook how close I’d been to other travelers.

I’d naively coached my family in the car on the way over. If they ask you about your health, answer them. You need to be honest, but not go into detail. They don’t care how you feel; it’s just about screening.

Then there wasn’t any.

I’m not sure why I expected someone to convey that they were evaluating my fitness to be on the airplane. Maybe it was recent news about proposals to have TSA agents take passenger temperatures.

And I’m not sure why I expected middle seats to go unused, even amid an industry revenue crisis. The reality: strangers will be seated next to each other. And those rows ahead and behind are closer than you remember, even if distance is kept while boarding.

Flight attendants were attentive and seemed attuned to protocols, yet the flight made me realize just how many ‘touch points’ are out there. I watched my husband use the back of the seat in front of him as he stood up. The person buying water passed a credit card and took the bottle from the same attendant hand that performed transactions up and down the aisle.  

COVID-19 changes in the travel industry continue to unfold. We hear about layoffs at airlines, hotels, and rental car companies. My last news alert before hitting airplane mode on my phone was a headline about Delta having 7,000 too many pilots.

I am not dismissive of the virus or social-distancing protocols. I also savor my travel opportunities, and - like when I buy carryout from restaurants and drop boxes of diapers at a nearby food pantry - I want to be part of the solutions for our economy. 

Once we landed in Florida, we found ourselves in the Promised Land for COVID-19 recovery: Restaurants, stores, public beaches and salons were open. Gyms reopened a few days later. Each made us aware of having to evaluate our comfort levels, both in choices there and back at home in Michigan, when the same choices will present themselves.

But flying is neither as common nor as personally controllable for exposure as those activities. And that’s where I wonder about its place in our collective future as our states reopen and scientists still race for a vaccine. We won’t be told if it's safe or not. We must evaluate it for ourselves and be ready for uncontrollables.

If you choose to fly, you’ll soon notice that the airlines can’t clean every surface. Every passenger will wear a mask, but maybe not while standing in line behind you.  The COVID-19 policies are made and, possibly, posted - but no one will ask if you have questions or understand. Or if you’re sick. And it’s possible that no one else will tell passengers to give you space. Once in the air, you might be inches from a stranger. And experts disagree on whether air circulation on board poses high risks. 

I thought I was ready to fly again. So far, I’m glad I did. But I wasn’t ready for my constant discomfort.  As I told my son while we were in the air, “This is not for the faint of heart.”

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Tue, 05/26/2020 - 8:23am

As might be deduced from the tendency to pack in more seats, smaller aisles, charges for meals, baggage, changing tickets and use f the term 'comfort class' (which implies also a 'discomfort class') it should be obvious by now that the airlines are interested in only one thing and it ain't service.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 9:32am

Disagree. It's not a very profitable business in the long run and they need to find a balance between comfort and efficiency while still maintaining profitability with the plethora of regulations on the industry. I've never had a complaint about economy other than how hard the seats are, but overseas a lot of those seats have significantly less cushioning - We have it pretty good here.
People need to stop freaking out about kung flu - Latest CDC numbers show an actual death rate of 0.26% and falling. It's no worse than the flu. You get exposed to the flu a significant percentage of the time you travel with the airlines, nobody freaks out about that - So no reason to freak out about coronavirus.

Nick Ciaramitaro
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 11:27am

Pretty sure the death rate for the flu is about 0.1 rather than 0.26. Plus there are treatments for the flu and none for COVID 19 yet. Wouldn't be too cavalier about 2 1/2 times the death rate.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 12:27pm

'People need to stop freaking out about kung flu - Latest CDC numbers show an actual death rate of 0.26% and falling. It's no worse than the flu.'
That's not the case. And if you get it you will quickly find out. But it's about ignoring things and doing what you want and ignoring 100,000 dead.

Reality Calling
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 2:06pm

"CDC released five planning scenarios including one based on "a current best estimate about viral transmission and disease severity in the United States." ......... It assumes an overall symptomatic case fatality rate (CFR) of 0.4 percent, roughly FOUR TIMES the estimated CFR for the seasonal flu."
So their BEST case scenario, of the 5 they published, is that this SARS II corona virus is FOUR TIMES MORE DEADLY. The % you cited is derived from limited antibody testing in 4 of the largest urban areas that have larger health care resources to produce higher averages of recovery and less fatalities per case. You can read the truth here:

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 5:24pm

Kung flu is a racist term. I'm not saying that you are racist, just that the term is. If you would like more information, this is the headline from an article in Psychology Today. If you google it, it will no doubt bring up the article. Calling COVID-19 a “Chinese Virus” or “Kung Flu” Is Racist President Trump doubles down on a racist term, endangering Asian Americans

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 6:57pm

Airfare is cheaper on both real and nominal basses than they were 40 years ago. Quit your bitchin or drive!

George Hagenauer
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 9:19am

At age 70 it is very possible I may nevr fly again as much as I would love to travel in retirement. I have been disposing of the books etc. I have accumulated over my lifetime through a few garage sales etc. a year. To save time I have accumulated a small list of people interested in the stuff. Given that each sale takes work I decided to email them to see what types of venues they would buy in. I am surprised more businesses aren't doing this. Basically about 30-40% would not go anywhere to buy my books. A lot of them were seniors or people with pre-existing condition. but we also have a book club that has been meeting in a bar so I asked about that 20% would go back to the back 100% would prefer a different venue limited to the club and with space to spread out. A small sample but if I was a business with more to risk than having a pile of books get bigger and not leave the house I would be surveying my customers if I had the means to do so.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 9:32am

I think it was a bad decision for you to fly, really, what were you thinking?? If you get sick only blame yourself. Never trust that others will follow the safety guidelines!

Scott Roelofs
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 9:54am

I flew from Michigan to Orlando for the Memorial Day weekend. It was weird seeing major airports mostly empty. Planes we're not full, but were not empty either. I would guess about 75% full. To my surprise, I was not able to get a reservation with Delta Airline. They cut their flights dramatically. I used American, which is new to me. It was an 'ok' experience. Everyone on board wore a mask. The one big improvement compared to the "old days?".....nobody was coughing on the plane. Usually there are multiple sick people on planes; not on this trip.
I think the airline did a fine job with regard to cleanliness. Still, each person is responsible for their own body. I did not feel I was in danger. Experts are now saying that this Wuhan virus spreads by infected people spraying droplets from their mouths into the air, and other people breathing it in. Picking it up off a surface is low risk.
The biggest negative aspect of flying now? To me, it is wearing a mask for several hours, and perspiring in it, and having a harder time breathing.

Jake K
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 10:11am

Considering that this virus is primarily transmitted by airborne means rather than by fomite transmission, why would one expose themselves to a contained air space with total strangers from unknown social platforms? Talk about "throwing the dice." I don't promote living in a cocoon, and building some herd immunity isn't a negative, but common sense decisions should prevail. I'm not going to play Frogger, just because I can.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 11:04am

If you're willing to get in an airplane then you must not be that scared about contracting the virus. You signed up to fly in an enclosed area for several hours , that's on you! Don't get me wrong I would have no problem getting on a plane but I just don't understand anybody who is going to criticize anybody else for the safety measures they are taking or not taking, if you're willing to fly!

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 10:25am

Your complaing yet you are not supposed to be travelling for fun and you get in a plane to go to a vacation home your not supposed to????!!!. So some would say you put people in danger. It's not others responsibility to protect you. You need to protect yourself.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 11:09am

It’s ok to not be afraid of a disease with a 99.984% survival rate...

Ed Fitzgerald
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 11:29am

Helpful article on the flight to Tampa. (The duffle, duffel question is addressed in the AP Stylebook.) Thanks for the info.

George Abbott C...
Tue, 05/26/2020 - 1:03pm

Many thanks for that personal POV on air travel. My wife and I have been frequentl travelers our entire adult lives. But, I have not been on a plane since March 6, and she has not left home since we concluded a month long trip to the West Coast in mid-January. Based on what we read, we are in no hurry to head to an airport anytime soon.

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 2:31pm

Good read Paula. Those viral on line posts with flights packed full like cattle cars. And the Virologist who caught it on a flight and was wearing a mask. God bless you; you have more courage than most.
We bought 3 non-stop tickets (pre-Covid) to fly our elderly mother to Denver to say goodbye to my brother who has ALS and maybe a year.
But UNITED cancelled our nonstop and routed us thru Chicago for a 3 hour layover which is impossible for my Mother even pre-Covid. That particular flight was FULL when I tried to pick a seat for Mom. When I called to complain, they cancelled our flight and then refused to refund us. We have formally contested those charges on our Visa card.
UNITED has earned everything that they will get during this pandemic.

james roberts
Wed, 05/27/2020 - 8:58am

Oh the trials of being in the upper class and having to endure the pandemic from their vacation homes in Florida, Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Montana, et al. One gets a little annoyed hearing the constant "we're all in this together". Are we? Most of us remain stuck in the hot spots where we have our only home, we venture out to the store because we have to, no servants to do it for us. Our income is half what is was if any and our kids did not come home from New York City or college bringing whatever spores they had with them. I too would like to travel again but I have to camp or drive and expect that won't be happening soon.